Posts Tagged ‘high school’

nancyadamsMost of us consider ourselves experts on high school — we’ve been there, after all. But how would that experience help or hurt us if we went back 20 years later, not as a student but as a teacher?

In Larry Baker’s smart and entertaining new novel The Education of Nancy Adams (Ice Tea Books, paperback ARC), Nancy, valedictorian of the class of ’77, returns to Kennedy High School as a first-year teacher 20 years after graduation. A widow with no children, she’s as surprised as anyone to be living in her late parents’ home on the St. Johns River in northeast Florida, but her favorite high school teacher, Russell Parsons, has lured her back. He’s the popular principal at Kennedy now, married with two daughters, but Nancy is still emotionally drawn to him. Once school starts, however, she has more on her mind than rekindling her schoolgirl crush.

Baker, author of Flamingo Rising, a terrific coming-of-age novel, creates a colorful microcosm populated with familiar yet credible characters. Nancy, who narrates, has students who are high-flyers, misfits, bullies, rebels, nerds. The perplexing Dana may be the smartest of them all, but she’s struggling to make up classes after having a baby. Nancy can’t figure her out. But she’s also contending with her fellow teachers: the veteran who helped integrate the faculty, the prissy by-the-book newcomer, the charismatic basketball coach, the guidance counselor who knows where all the bodies are buried. Over the course of a schoolyear, replete with surprises, Nancy learns from them all about what being a teacher really means.

Baker’s book is in tune with the times — the mid 1990s — and thoughtfully explores issues of racial prejudice, sexual harassment, school violence and school-board politics. But mostly it’s a good story about mostly good people making their way in a changing world. I’m giving it an “A.”

flyingshoesIf you are the kind of person who alphabetizes your books, color-codes your closets and likes stories with a clear beginning, middle and end, bookstore owner Lisa Howorth’s first novel, Flying Shoes (Bloomsbury, digital galley) is likely to drive you plum crazy. How appropriate it kicks off with Mary Byrd Thornton throwing a cheap plate on the heart-pine kitchen floor of her Oxford, Miss., home. The shards of faux-china explode all over the place, just like the pieces of Mary Byrd’s story. It’s a credit to Howorth’s often-glorious writing that you’re willing to pick through the mess.

Really, plot is the least of it, although Mary Byrd throws the plate after getting the news that the 1966 unsolved case of her murdered little brother in Richmond, Va., is being reopened after 30 years and Mary Byrd needs to come home. This will eventually result in her hitching a ride with a trucker and outrunning the ice storm that paralyzes Oxford, but not before her housekeeper Eva’s daughter is accused of murdering her abusive husband. And then there’s Mary Byrd’s husband Charles and their children, her gay best friend Hubbard, the homeless but resourceful vet Teever, and gallivanting flirt Jack Ernest. They all have their stories, which intertwine with Mary Byrd’s like the ragged vines in her overgrown garden. The past tale of the murdered brother is overwhelmed by the casual chaos of  Mary Byrd’s present, the very randomness of the everyday. Best go with the flow, or you can always fling a plate.



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thefeverIn two of her previous novels, The End of Everything and Dare Me, Megan Abbott expertly mined the secret lives of teenage girls. She does it again in The Fever (Little, Brown, digital galley), inspired by the real-life outbreak of a mysterious illness among girls at a New York high school, several of whom testified on the Today show about their persistent tics and twitches.

In The Fever, puzzlement and panic ensue when pretty Lise has a violent seizure in class. Her BFF Deenie, who witnessed the frightening event, frantically texts their other friend Gabby and later convinces her father, a teacher at the school, that she must go to the hospital to see Lise. As rumors fly through the school and community, Lise lapses into a coma and other girls, including Gabby, develop alarming symptoms — rapid blinking, fainting, dizziness, confusion. Is the lake algae toxic? Maybe it’s a tainted HPV vaccine. Or it just the result of stress, maybe eating disorders? Deenie, who has been keeping several secrets from her family and friends, wonders if she’s somehow complicit in her friends’ illness, or is it just a matter of time before she, too, is stricken?

“You spend a long time waiting for life to start — the past year or two filled with all these firsts, everything new amd terrifying and significant — and then it does start and you realize it isn’t what you expected, or asked for.”

The mystery illness propels the story, but its depth comes from Abbott’s artful depiction of the teens’ fevered friendships and rivalries, fueled by peer pressure, paranoia and raging hormones. There’s no vaccine for high school.

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Are your memories of high school heavenly, or are they hellish? Perhaps a bit of both, which is why high school often feels like limbo, the necessary way station before whatever happens next.

The students in Dead Rules, Randy Russell’s killer YA debut, can relate. Their lives interrupted by sudden death, these teens find themselves at a ghostly school wearing the clothes and wounds of their passing. Poor Jana Webster. She has on bowling shoes! For an aspiring actress bent on a Broadway career with boyfriend Michael Hayes, this is totally humilating. Sure it could be worse — she could have arrived with a lawn dart sticking out of her head, or missing a major limb. Jana’s pretty lucky with just a bloody bump on the back of her skull and a tube of lip gloss in her pocket.

But Jana doesn’t feel lucky. Michael isn’t with her. How can she go on without the love of her life? Webster and Hayes for all eternity!  Michael must die, even if she has to kill him herself.

She can’t do it alone though. Dead School, like other high schools, has classes and cliques and rules. As a Riser almost assured of salvation, Jana has lost connection with the “Planet.” Only with the help of a more warm-blooded Slider,  a student who retains an earthly connection because of past misdeeds, can she hope to communicate with Michael. Mars Dreamcote, for instance, is a Slider who frequently risks expulsion by going off campus as a ghost of his former self and already has broken the rules by explaining some of them to Jana. That he also knows more about Jana’s life and death than she realizes still awaits her discovery. First, though, they need to attend Jana’s funeral.

Wickedly clever. Or cleverly wicked. Either way, Russell’s tale is also funny, thoughtful and poignant, with a fully realized world of quirky, recognizable teens. I’m totally crushing on Mars, the blue-eyed “bad boy” secretly seeking redemption. Expertly plotted, the story builds to a final, brilliant sentence. But don’t skip ahead or you might miss the impact. This once you’ll want to follow the rules start to finish.

Open Book: I bought the e-book version of Dead Rules (HarperTeen), and my longtime friend Randy Russell has not bribed me to say nice things. I’m just sorry I haven’t gotten around to saying them sooner.

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