May 27, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Teens Review True Crime, Memoirs, and More

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Our latest batch of reviews by teens include evaluations of a gothic romance, a stirring refugee story, and a heartrending memoir of abuse and redemption.

ABAWI, Atia. A Land of Permanent Goodbyes. 288p. Philomel. Jan. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780399546839.
Gr 7 Up–This book follows the main character, Tareq, after he and his family are separated as a result of an explosion in his apartment building during the Syrian war. Venturing into the unknown of the rest of the world without family to guide him, Tareq must decide what is more important to him: the safety of the family he has left or saving those who have no one left to protect them. He must differentiate between who and what is good or bad for him and act accordingly.

Throughout the lone adventure that he takes, with every person he meets, a new characteristic is added to his persona. There is a noticeably drastic change in the character of Tareq from the beginning to the end of the story. We, as readers, are able to increasingly connect to these characters on an emotional and intellectual level as we go through the book. When reading, you begin to think of the things that you’re going through and apply the same lessons to your life. Seeing the kind of everyday problems these characters go through is eye-opening. You start to realize your own challenges are miniscule compared to the things they go through on a daily basis. Regardless of the fact that this story is fiction, you know that somewhere in the world, this exact thing is happening to someone, somewhere.

I knew this book would stir up A LOT of emotion just by looking at the cover. A Land of Permanent Goodbyes was already a sad title, and I don’t usually read more emotionally impactful books, but I decided this would be the book for me. The two blurry people standing in the distance leave a lot of room for wondering about the contents of the book. However, the empty bullet shells in the foreground clearly relate what the overall tone will be. The bright, lit up, golden sky, in the background contrast the bullet shells, predicting hope and perseverance within the story. No amount of thinking about the cover will chalk up the true power and wisdom that is held in the narrative, not in the slightest.

Personally, my favorite parts of the book were the suspense parts. They added a certain depth and appreciation to the more climatic scenes. When reading the reviews on this recently published book, you begin to question if they are true, but when reading, I couldn’t find one harsh or negative thing to say about this book; other than the fact that it doesn’t go on infinitely. This was a book that I could not put down and I would recommend it to anyone who likes to read and even people who don’t. I especially recommend this book to people who are going through tough times. This book will make you feel like you’re not alone and that no matter what you’re going through, there will always be a light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how far away that light may seem.—Paige R., 14. See SLJ’s starred review.

ETLER, Cyndi. The Dead Inside: A True Story. 304p. Sourcebooks/Fire. April 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781492635734.
Gr 9 Up–The memoir of Cyndy Etler is told through the perspective of her 14-year-old self, struggling to cope with a sexually abusive stepdad. While looking for a home to live in, she goes to  Bridgeport with her best friend. This sets off a series of events leading Cyndi to run away from home and eventually land in a rehabilitation facility in Virginia called Straight Inc. Throughout the book, you navigate the positive and negative characteristics traits of the people who cross Cyndi’s path. Though some of what happens to her is hard to believe, she provides evidence to corroborate her story.

The most gut-wrenching part of this book is how Cyndi’s mother ignores the abuse she suffers, even when her mom is an eyewitness to it. The character of Cyndi’s mom is truly disgusting. It reminded me of [Toni Morrison’s] The Bluest Eye. The main characters of The Dead Inside and The Bluest Eye both have no support and are not believed by the people in their society.

This book is recommended for ages 14–17, but it was pretty graphic in some scenes. I truly believe that it is way too graphic for certain 14-year-olds. But I also understand why it would be recommended to kids that age. One key reason is that the narrative focuses around that same age in Cyndi’s life. It seems to be a recommendation for the purpose of awareness and encouraging kids to speak up if this happens to them too. However, if a child of 15 or younger picks up this book, they should not read it alone. They should read it with an adult guide because there are some explicit scenes young minds may not be ready for.

Throughout the book, Cyndi’s words left an impression on me. In particular, she says, “I never was a badass. Or a slut, a junkie, a stoner, like they told me I was. I was just a kid looking for something good, something that felt like love.” I believe that this is something to always remember. There are teens out there just looking for a way out and looking for happiness. This helped me understand people in my life and what they are going through.—Briana, T., 17

GOEDJEN, Tara. The Breathless. 368p. Delacorte. Oct. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781524714765.
Gr 8 Up—Picture a young girl in her teens. She’s fully clothed and floating in a body of with water, but oblivious to a haunted house in front of her. That, right there, is the cover of The Breathless in a nutshell. The cover attracted me and left such perplexing emotions and questions in my mind. Though I’ve judged a book by its cover, I found that the general gist of the cover connected to the blurb and overall synopsis of the book. It reflects the darkness of the Cole family and the mystery behind the gothic South. And the title itself, though clichéd, influenced my decision to read the book.

I adored the characters in The Breathless. Goedjen has populated this novel with characters that are as strange as they are fascinating. Mae, the protagonist, had experienced the loss of her sister, Ro, and life hasn’t been so bright since. Mae’s father gained an obsession with finding Cage, Ro’s boyfriend who disappeared the night after her death, but comes back with no memory of the tragedy. Ro’s curiosity led her to align with Cage and uncover the truth behind her family secrets and what really happened during the night of her sister’s death. The characters in this story truly contribute to the suspenseful aspect of this book. They imbue the magic and mystery of the South, and make me adore the darkness that ensues.

I would totally recommend to any YA lovers! The book is filled with gorgeous writing that made me turn the pages continuously, day and night. Mystery and suspense unfold with the past secrets of the Cole family, and present-day confessionals. Everything about the book is so thought-provoking. The masterful ending influenced my decision to reread several parts of the story, making me gain a new perspective of each situation. It’s the kind of book you’d want to have a proper conversation about because of the varied opinions you might have of each character. If you love dark magic, or thriller-type YAs, this book is for you.—Tenzin C., 14

PORINCHAK, Eve. One Cut. (Simon True). 256p. Simon Pulse. May 2017. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781481481328; pap. $10.99. ISBN 9781481481311.
Gr 8 Up—One Cut by Eve Porinchak demonstrates how the criminal justice system’s punishments don’t always fit the crime. This nonfiction account takes place on May 22, 1995, in a White suburb of Los Angeles. It follows five teenagers and the mysterious stabbing death of Jimmy Farris. The story takes the perspective of all five teenagers on this crime.

The book itself is very appealing to me. On the cover of the book, you can see red lettering with a large picture of a knife, and the background is just simply black. One aspect of the cover that caught my attention was the red writing, which just says ONE CUT in big letters. It suggests to me that it’s a book about murder, and the black background makes me think of mystery. Another thing that caught my attention is the knife and how it has nothing else around it; this hints that the text will get right to the point and it will only focuses on one thing, regardless of telling different perspectives.

For me personally, I like a lot of nonfiction books or stories that are based on true stories, just because I feel like it gives readers more knowledge about the world, and people tend to learn more from facts. I’m not implying that you can’t learn anything from fiction books, but these just get straight to a point and stick with it. For example, in this book Porinchak also decided to add information about the U.S. criminal justice system and how it works; well, how it failed to work in this case. —Michelle M., 17

BALOG, Cyn. Alone. 288p. Soucebooks/Fire. Nov. 2017 Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781492655473.
Gr 9 Up—
There’s property for sale that Seda’s aunt ran as a haunted house. Seda is anything but thrilled when she is forced to spend the summer up in the mountains, waiting for her mother to sell the place to someone who will keep its memory alive. Summer turns to winter in no time; soon enough a group of teens gets stranded and Seda has no choice but to offer them shelter. To uphold the property’s tradition, keep the kids entertained, and celebrate Seda’s Halloween birthday, her mother creates a murder-mystery game. The unexpected plot twists make this a truly interesting read.

The most gripping aspect of the book was the protagonist. Seda is not your average teen. She has a subconscious that she named Sawyer, her supposed twin brother. She believes she sucked him up in the womb, and he is her alternate personality. In a way, he is Seda’s bully. He is the insecurities, selfishness, and cruel and negative part of her personality. The author shows how multiple scenarios can expose the worst in people through the murder-mystery Seda’s mom plans. As the story progresses, readers are taken on a journey where finding clues is the objective; however, friendships are tested, lines between true and false are blurred, and reality hangs in the balance.

The mystery of the novel not only floods its pages, but is also displayed on the front cover. A dark blue door with a slight crack and a hellish light peeking through is the main focus. This image made me gravitate toward the book, it made me feel as though I would be second-guessing every decision the characters made. The contrast between the protagonist and all supporting characters kept the book alive. This novel is well written; my only concern would be that the story is not a compelling read until the middle. Readers may draw back from the book before the get to the spine-tingling, hair-raising end. The conclusion is the biggest twist of the whole story line; it is critical to understanding Seda and everything strange about her.

If you enjoy stories that will have you at the edge of your seat and relentlessly flipping through pages to solve a mystery along with the characters, then this book is for you. Balog’s ability to create an alternative reality is evident in the way the story line progresses through suspense, romance, and plot twists that will keep you wanting more.—Billie T, 17

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz ( is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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