Take a Trip Back to High School in Brutal Youth

November 21, 2014 Book Review, reviews 5

Many thanks to the publisher for the complimentary review copy; however, these are solely my thoughts and opinions and not influenced in any way.

Take a Trip Back to High School in Brutal YouthBrutal Youth
by Anthony Breznican
Published by Macmillan
On June 10th, 2014
Genre: Fiction, Young Adult
Pages: 416
Source: complimentary review copy
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Perhaps I lived under a rock in high school.  I’m actually really, really glad I didn’t go to a private school, especially one as, um, toxic, as St. Michaels in Brutal Youth.  Did you know that some private high schools actually sanction hazing?

Filled with snippets of profoundness like Everyone bullies somebody, and When people didn’t like you, they got in your way.  When they didn’t care about you, they let you get in your own way.    The first scene is gripping, horrifying ~ like watching a train wreck happen.  Peter Davidvek happens to be doing a freshman tour on the day Colin “Clink” loses it after years of brutalized bullying.  Because his parents do not believe Peter’s version of the events {everything is hushed up in the newspaper and as it’s the early ’90s there’s no social media or cell phones at the ready} Peter ends up attending St. Michaels.

The Cast

Peter Davidvek ~ the likable freshman who tries to do the right thing {like save a boy in the opening chapter only to incur the wrath of the guidance counselor, Ms. Bromine, and the utter disbelief of his parents}

Noah Stein ~ gutsy, take-no-crap attitude scarred-face friend of Peter and partner-in-crime {actually partner in trying to save the boy from harm by kissing Ms. Bromine while Peter pulled boy to safety ~ see what I mean about gutsy?!?}

Lorelei Paskal ~ also new incoming freshman with something to prove.  She simply wants to be popular and will go to surprising lengths to gain that popularity.  Also in a sort-of love triangle with Peter and Noah.

Ms. Bromine ~ guidance counselor, teacher, ultimate mean girl {yep, she’s the mean girl abusing her position and power in ways you will not believe!}

Father Mercedes ~ his church {and buildings} are crumbling and falling down around him and he just wants it to end so he can start over fresh.

Sister Maria ~ the well-intentioned but completely ineffective principal

Brutal Youth had the feel of early ’90s high school amped up to the nth degree.  The writing is absorbing with clear ability to drag emotions out of its reader whether it be anger in a “no, she did not just say that-” kind of way or a cringing kind-of compassion wishing you could jump through the pages, hug a student and tell her “there is really a better way.”  The one thing I will especially commend Anthony Breznican about is his ability to drag me back to high school even though I never stepped foot in a private school.  There’s something so universal about the emotions one goes through as a freshman that Anthony was able to effectively communicate on the pages of Brutal Youth.

While the youth in the novel were clearly developed, well-rounded characters, the adults were almost garish in comparison.  I probably feel that way because there is not a single adult I liked in the book.  As a matter of fact, I wanted to slap most of them, especially Peter’s out-of-touch parents.

The first chapter is a hold-your-breath, edge-of-the-seat introduction to Brutal Youth and plateaus somewhat after the explosive beginning.  Not necessarily a bad thing as my heart certainly could not have taken many more chapters that emotional.  Recommended for anyone who went to high school in the 80’s, early 90’s or someone who wants to know what not to do as a high school guidance counselor. . .and for anyone who simply enjoys the emergence of a debut author with a unique sense of humor and writing ability galore.

Be sure to check out my interview with the author in which he shares his own stories of private Catholic school ~ terrifying!

How were your high school days?  Have a beloved teacher story or a vindictive, hateful, horrible teacher story {we all probably have one of those I imagine!}?

Many thanks to BE Consulting for including me on the Blog Tour!


4 Actionable Steps to Effect Change as Inspired by the Howard Jacobson novel J

November 19, 2014 Book Review 9

4 Actionable Steps to Effect Change as Inspired by the Howard Jacobson novel JJ: A Novel
by Howard Jacobson
Published by Hogarth
On August 14th, 2014
Genre: Dystopian, Fiction
Pages: 326
Source: complimentary review copy
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When I would tell strangers that I work with abused and neglected children I would often get the response “there’s no way I could do that job.”  For the longest time, in self-important manner, I would respond with “how can I not,” subtly implying that they should be out advocating for children as well.  I’m not proud of my self-righteousness nor my judgement {they may have been feeding the hungry for all I knew!} but I am proud of the work I did.  Those years taught me so much about my fellow man.  While I met a few truly evil individuals there were many more that were just unprepared or unable to care properly for their children.  I’m not excusing any parent’s mistreatment of their child, but I did come to learn that not all things are as they appear.

My years working with CASA and in a group home also ingrained in me that in every single case the little things added up and made the biggest differences.  I wish I could tattoo that fact on the hearts of everyone, everywhere how true that concept is in action.  And then I saw the news this week that gave me pause:   the brutal beheading of American Peter Kassig by Isis and the horrific slaughter of four men in a Jewish synagogue and the subsequent death of one of the police officers stopping the two killers.   Helpless and hopeless.  Two incredibly self-defeating emotions.  Two feelings that suck the life right out of me and two that I try very, very hard to not fall into.  With the newscasts this week it is understandable to either fall into despair from the senselessness or to turn a blind eye so that you don’t fall into that despair pit.

What got me out of hopeless and helpless and what keeps me going is moving forward.  Taking action.  Relying on my knowledge and training to propel me forward; knowing Margaret Mead is spot on when she said never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.  John F. Kennedy is right when he quoted Edmund Burke by saying the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.  With that in mind I made the beginnings of a list of actionable steps anyone can do to move in the direction of making the world a better place, for all of mankind.

Four Actionable Steps to Take Today

1.  Be kind to your fellow man.  Change starts with me. with you.  To effect change we must be the change.  Kindness to all and not just those we deem “worthy.” Anything less perpetuates prejudice and injustice.

2.  Become informed.  If you feel that the newspapers and television news shows are only giving us part of the story, go online.  Read blogs.  Read the news from other countries via the Internet {more times than not you can find sites with news in a language you can understand}.  Seek out the truth.  Interview those who are in the thick of it and can tell you the truth.

3.  Write letters to those in power positions outlining your views on an injustice.  Ask for a response.  If it’s someone in political power use your vote to influence.  You’d be surprised what a well-worded letter in the right hands can accomplish.

4.  Use social media to inform others in a non-threatening, non-violent manner.  Social media has been shown to be a hugely effective platform for initiating calls-to-action.  Anyone participate in #GivingTuesday that began a couple of years ago?

Please do share any additions you have to this list in the comments.

This post was inspired by the novel J: A Novel by Howard Jacobson, about a world where collective memory has vanished and the past is a dangerous country, not to be talked about or visited:  “the past exists so that we may forget it.”  In a world recovering from a second holocaust, differences are not celebrated.  Heirlooms are not tolerated, and still the “J” are not accepted.  

Join From Left to Write on November 20th as we discuss J: A Novel.  As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.


Author Spotlight: Anthony Breznican on Brutal Youth

November 13, 2014 Author Interview, Spotlight Author 6

brutal youth by anthony breznicanFor anyone who has ever been to high school, especially a private high school, Brutal Youth is a must read.  Debut author, Anthony Breznican joins us for a trip back in time and a bit of parental comparing.  I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.  Anthony’s writing style shines through with a subtle humor and laser focused insight.

Brutal Youth reminded me of the early John Hughes movies and Winona Ryder’s “Heathers.” If Brutal Youth were made into a movie what 2014 actors would have you creating your own sort-of modern-day “Brat Pack?”

I love that comparison! “Heathers” is one I haven’t heard before, but it totally fits for Brutal Youth — kind of a twisted, scary fairy-tale version of adolescent life. As far as actors today that I would imagine as the characters … Hmm, I loved Dylan O’Brien in The Maze Runner. He shows phenomenal inner turmoil, and if he were still 15 he’d be fantastic as the lead, Peter Davidek, an unlucky but good-hearted kid who desperately wants to be braver than he is. For Lorelei, a girl whose homelife is so harsh she’s determined to be popular at school (no matter who she has to alienate) I think Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka is perfect. She’s even the perfect age — but most of all, she knows how to capture someone whose heart runs both warm and cold.

I wondered if anyone else had seen Heathers or if it was just my cult fave!  For us ’80s kids {I graduated high school 1990!} which of the Brat Pack actors could you see playing in the Brutal Youth movie?

Talking total fantasy casting, I think a teenage Robert Downey Jr. would make an excellent Noah Stein, the fearless smart-ass who fights everyone else’s battles and serves as the sort of blasting-cap for Davidek and Lorelei. It would also create cool cognitive dissonance to see a few former child stars as some of the grown-ups, especially the unhinged ones. I sometimes imagined present-day Molly Ringwald or Winona Ryder as Ms. Bromine, the guidance counselor who once relished being a queen bee at the school and now resents the students who’ve replaced her. (It messes with the audience’s head, kind of like casting Ferris Bueller as the uptight teacher in Election.)

Ah, you nailed that casting! I can so see Molly Ringwald especially as Ms. Bromine.   As someone who grew up Southern Baptist and completely unaware of what happens in the Catholic private school, the year-long hazing aspect left me shocked and horrified.

I don’t think these problems are exclusive to Catholic school; that’s just the environment I knew growing up. Brutal Youth could have been set a military school, or a rich kid’s private school, or anywhere there’s a strict hierarchy. I think people are hazed at work when they start a new job, and a lot of these behaviors continue well into adulthood. Humans are not so different from wolf packs — we like to assert dominance and place our teeth on each other’s throats.

Good point.  We had two military schools in my hometown and the stories we heard while I was in high school were terrifying.  Was bullying something that you experienced? either as the victim or the victimizer? and does it still occur today?

My high school had sanctioned hazing, but I believe they’ve done away with it now. Sure, like almost everyone, I was picked on, called names, and occasionally chased and beaten up by people who didn’t like my face or attitude — or just wanted to vent some aggression on someone. I definitely know what it’s like to be pulverized — emotionally and physically — by people who are bigger than me. Brutal Youth is about why some people who suffer horribly end up becoming even worse when they get the upper hand, while others decide “This stops with me.” All it takes is one person to show you kindness, to sacrifice something for you, and it can change your whole perspective. There are a lot of times I wish I had stood up for people I saw getting bullied when I was a small fry, but I’ve got a clear conscience about being an older kid. I followed the final line from the novel Bang the Drum Slowly: “From here on in, I rag nobody.”

There are numerous studies that show just that – it just takes one person to say “no” to take that stand, to make a world of difference.  That point is drawn out in the book through the different characters.  When you were writing Brutal Youth did you have any props such as clothes or songs that helped to serve as inspiration?

I still have my old scarlet red uniform tie, but it’s not a clip-on like in the book! The main song that served as inspiration is Favourite Hour, but Elvis Costello. It contains the lyric, “Now there’s a tragic waste of brutal youth …” which gives the book its title, but that song is full of other lines that inspired elements of the story. “Blessings I don’t count, small mercies and such …” That “tragic waste” line means a lot to me because I’m the kind of person who ruminates on problems, I dwell on the negative, and when we don’t count those blessings and small mercies we miss a lot of what’s wonderful about life. It also has the haunting line, “Put out my eyes so I may never spy …” That notion — I would rather suffer than cause suffering for others — is the heart of the concept “this stops with me,” and one character takes that to a very heartbreaking extreme.

Those lyrics are devastating.  So deeply moving and so perfect an inspiration.  Anthony, you captured the disconnect between Peter and his parents so effectively for the time period. Do you believe parents of today are better equipped or more aware of the need to stay involved in their teen’s life?

Parenthood is such an important job, but the world is full of people who suck at their jobs — including that one. There are a lot of lousy moms and dads out there, both then and now. Talk to any teacher and they’ll tell you heartbreaking stories about kids they’ve taught who come from dysfunctional or toxic homes. It’s horrifying to those of us who do love our kids and are trying so hard to be good parents, but it’s a sad fact of life. The worst parent in the book is Lorelei’s mom, who is outright abusive and dumps her own disappointment and rage on her daughter. Peter Davidek’s parents are more like a big brother and big sister who are pissed off about getting stuck with babysitting duty. I imagine they had kids young, maybe too young, and they resent the responsibility, so they’re aloof and dismissive. Peter spends the whole book trying to get their help, but they never take him seriously. His journey is about becoming strong on his own, and ultimately not needing their help.

I think that particular storyline troubled me most – that Peter ultimately learns to rely on himself.   Which is probably a weird storyline to get hung up on when there are so many other ‘brutal’ aspects ~ probably has to do with my kids growing up and moving out.  Overcoming empty nesting is hard!  What do you see as the difference between parenting in the early ’90s to the parenting of today?

It was harder to keep track of your kids back then, so it was easier for teenagers to live secret lives. “I’m going to the mall!” But they had no idea where we were really going! There was an element of freedom there, but also trust. Now kids text photos of their whereabouts and have their emails and internet activity monitored by parents. I think moms and dads hover more over their kids — which is why they call it “helicopter parenting,” I guess. In some ways, that’s good … but you also have grown-ups breathing down your neck incessantly, which maybe infantilizes kids more than they used to be. I think rule-breaking may be necessary to forge healthy independence. It all reminds me of this poem about parenting by Philip Larkin called “This Be The Verse,” which starts out: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.” The conflict between parents and kids is an eternal one. We’d better get used to it!

Hmmm, I can recall those “going to the mall” trips!  Certainly glad I grew up in the ’80s as opposed to now!  It is always fascinating to learn what our favorite authors are reading and loving. Although you probably get this question quite often it’s so hard to resist asking ~ What are you reading now?

I’ve been reading a lot of first-time novelists lately, maybe because I’m one and I feel a kinship. It’s tough to get readers to take a chance on somebody new, so I’m trying to seek them out. I’m starting A Tree Born Crooked, a debut novel by Steph Post, which is a grit-lit crime saga set in the Florida panhandle. I’m just getting started, but it’s clever and brimming with tension, and even though it’s getting dark and cold outside as fall gives way to winter, it makes me feel humid and sweaty from the atmosphere she describes. Next up will be A Land More Kind Than Home, by Wiley Cash — another writer I’ve been dying to check out.

Thanks so much Anthony for your time, insightful responses and for a book that resonates.

My pleasure. Thanks for giving my book about schoolkids in trouble a read. I hope the double-crosses and broken hearts made for a decent page-turner.

Yes it did.  Most certainly did.  {Stay tuned for my review of Brutal Youth}



A Few Author Insights via By the Book

November 12, 2014 Book Review, reviews 5

Many thanks to the publisher for the complimentary review copy; however, these are solely my thoughts and opinions and not influenced in any way.

A Few Author Insights via By the BookBy the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review
by Pamela Paul
Published by Henry Holt & Co
On October 28th, 2014
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: complimentary review copy
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from the book jacket

Every Sunday, readers of The New York Times Book Review turn with anticipation to see which novelist, historian, short story writer, or artist will be the subject of the popular By the Book feature.  These wide-ranging interviews are conducted by Pamela Paul, the editor of the Book Review, and here she brings together sixty-five of the most intriguing and fascinating exchanges. . .

With a star-studded list of authors interviewed, from J.K. Rowling to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Donna Tartt and Stephen King, By the Book is a book-lover’s dream.  It’s kind-of like the Entertainment Tonight of the writing world, only without the flashy dresses, bright lights and intro music!

By the Book delves deeper into the lives of familiar authors and others on the fringes of the literary world.  Many of the interviews have similar questions, though not all.  It was interesting to see of those authors who did have similar questions how far-ranging the responses were across the board!  Just goes to show how incredibly unique us humans are.

Most intriguing interview question?  If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?  Malcolm Gladwell’s response is particularly insightful ;-) The new Lee Child, of course!  It might be nice for him to escape for a few hours to a world where one man can solve every one of the world’s problems with nothing but his wits and his fists.  Which has me wondering, do you think President Obama reads these interviews and presidential book recommendations?

Interview answer I could most relate to?  Sheryl Sandberg in response to What were your favorite books as a child? Do you have a favorite character of hero from one of those books? can I be Shery’s new best friend?!?  I wanted to be Meg Murray, the admittedly geeky heroine of A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. . . . .if you’re new to The Novel Life you may want to read my love letter to Madeleine L’Engle.

Had me scrambling for a dictionary?  Question posed to Ira Glass You studied semiotics at Brown.  How has that informed the way you read novels?  what the heck is semiotic?  for those like me who are unfamiliar with the term ~ it is the study of signs and sign-using behaviour, especially in language.  I wonder if Paul deliberately used $5 words for this particular interview. . .

Left me proud to have read his books?  The interview with Dave Eggers reveals his total dedication to encouraging young people to read and to write. Eggers cofounded 826 National and annually he works with high school students to put together an anthology of The Best American Nonrequired Reading.

In these interviews it is easy to get a sense of who is grossly opinionated, who has a funny bone and who you could see yourself hanging out with companionably with maybe a cup of coffee or a cold beer.  The interviews of authors I already adore mostly made me love them even more.  This book would make a wonderful Christmas present for a reader in your life {or yourself!}.  It’s one of those books that you don’t read at one sitting but keep nearby and read an interview here and there.  I’m hoping By the Book will become an annual tradition!

Please note that the quotes used were from an advanced reader’s copy and may be edited in the final copy.


The Justice Series & Vigilantes Recovered

November 5, 2014 Book Review 2

Many thanks to the publisher for the complimentary review copy; however, these are solely my thoughts and opinions and not influenced in any way.

The Justice Series & Vigilantes RecoveredThe Unforgivable Fix & The Red Hot Fix
by T.E. Woods
Published by Alibi
Genre: Fiction, Thriller
Pages: 320
Source: complimentary review copy
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The Red Hot Fix opens several months after the explosive ending to The Fixer.  Psychologist Lydia Corriger is still recovering from her injuries while Mort Grant has been promoted to Chief of Detectives.  Someone is killing johns in the city in a most humiliating manner.  Mort along with his son Robbie {who now has a bestseller under his belt after writing about ‘the fixer’}; and Mort’s close-knit team are hot on the case.

Personally I really enjoy the aspects of Lydia’s treatment of the patients in her practice.  While The Red Hot Fix does not see Lydia back in the office, she does befriend an eight year old girl, Maizie, who has tremendous problems of her own. . .and needs a bit of ‘fixin!’

T.E. Woods does a remarkable job of weaving Lydia and Mort’s story lines throughout The Red Hot Fix.  Although this one was just a bit slower in the beginning than The Fixer, it quickly picks up and has you guessing at the identity of the killer til the very end.  Woods is adept at throwing in the red herrings and while I did eventually figure out the identity of the ‘john’ killer it wasn’t until the last 1/4 of the book! Highly recommended for anyone who loves a good suspense.


The Unforgivable Fix has Lydia slowly taking on clients again and supervising a PhD researcher in his journey to becoming a fully licensed psychologist.  Mort has to rely on Lydia’s unique skill set in order to protect his family.  We see Lydia and Mort’s story intersect and weave together throughout The Unforgivable Fix – Lydia’s supervision of the researcher, an investigation of sexual abuse allegations,  Mort’s investigation of an international drug kingpin, and the return of Mort’s prodigal daughter, Allie {who is on the run from a Russian drug lord!}

The Unforgivable Fix is intense, fast-paced and has you questioning ‘what actions are unforgivable?’ Woods is brilliant in her ability to have multiple stories going at once and each begs the question of what can you excuse and what is unforgivable.  Some series leave me bored after the first couple of books.  With Woods’ The Justice Series it feels like she is only gearing up.  I love Lydia’s character even when I want to shake her and tell her to trust Mort, tell him what’s going on and Mort? Well, Captain Mort needs a good kick in the pants, knock over the head or punch in the nose. . .but he is still such a darling!

If you have not read The Justice Series novels yet, what the heck are you waiting on?  T.E. Woods is one of those novelists you can escape with for a few hours and once you finally come up for air, truly feel as if you have been on a wild roller coaster ride.  highly recommend you start with The Fixer because of the  backstory that is important to grasp prior to getting into The Red Hot Fix and The Unforgivable Fix. 

What guilty pleasure author do you read for theme-park-worthy escapism?


Tremendous thanks to TLC Book Tours for making us a stop of tour!  To follow along the tour and check out other opinions of The Justice Series please visit TLC Book Tours here.