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Book Review: The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

Book Review:  The Most Dangerous Place on EarthThe Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
three-half-stars
Published by Random House on January 10th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:

A captivating debut novel for readers of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and Curtis Sittenfeld’s PrepThe Most Dangerous Place on Earth unleashes an unforgettable cast of characters into a realm known for its cruelty and peril: the American high school.

In an idyllic community of wealthy California families, new teacher Molly Nicoll becomes intrigued by the hidden lives of her privileged students. Unknown to Molly, a middle school tragedy in which they were all complicit continues to reverberate for her kids: Nick, the brilliant scam artist; Emma, the gifted dancer and party girl; Dave, the B student who strives to meet his parents’ expectations; Calista, the hippie outcast who hides her intelligence for reasons of her own. Theirs is a world in which every action may become public postable, shareable, indelible. With the rare talent that transforms teenage dramas into compelling and urgent fiction, Lindsey Lee Johnson makes vivid a modern adolescence lived in the gleam of the virtual, but rich with the sorrow, passion, and beauty of life in any time, and at any age.

My Review:

I’ll confess up front that I went into Lindsey Lee Johnson’s striking debut novel The Most Dangerous Place on Earth blindly. I was intrigued by its title and have had such great luck with debut authors lately that I eagerly snatched this one up when I received an email from Netgalley suggesting it as a book that might interest me and saw that it was another debut.  I started reading and was immediately captivated and maybe even a little horrified to find that from this book’s standpoint, the ‘most dangerous place on earth’ is, in fact, high school.

The opening chapters pack an emotional punch.  The story begins with a look at a group of eighth graders in an affluent school district in San Francisco.  We see a socially awkward boy named Tristan Bloch, who has been having trouble fitting in and is basically friendless, decide to write a love letter to one of the most popular girls in his class, Cally Broderick.  This single act sets off a heartbreaking and life changing series of events. Cally decides, for whatever reason, to give this note to her boyfriend Ryan, who then decides to post the note on Facebook for all of their classmates to see and then friends Tristan on Facebook with the sole purpose of humiliating him. Other friends follow suit and they then relentlessly cyberbully Tristan until he tragically ends his own life by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.  The rest of the story follows the core group of kids who were ultimately responsible for Tristan’s death.

Johnson presents her story from multiple points of view.  She weaves together a series of vignettes where we hear from each of those students, beginning in eighth grade and then returning to each of them as juniors and seniors in high school.   We watch them all attempt to navigate the various pitfalls of high school and to a certain extent, adolescence in general – peer pressure, pressure from parents, alcohol, drugs, and of course, lessons not learned regarding using social media to humiliate people, even after what happened to Tristan.  Interspersed between those chapters we also hear from a first year (and still very idealistic) English teacher Molly Nicoll who has all of these kids in her English classes, sees all of them struggling to stay afloat, and tries to do everything she can to connect with them.

What I Liked:

I think what I liked the most about The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is how eye-opening it was.  As a parent, reading this story made me all the more aware of the fact that no matter how I raise my child and how active I am in his life, there are always still going to be so many other influences out there shaping him into who he is going to be, in some cases working directly in opposition to the kind of person I’m hoping he’ll grow up to be.  It also has me rethinking my views on the internet and social media.  In the past, I’ve always been primarily focused on protecting my child from online predators.  This book has really made me rethink that stance since apparently cyberbullying fellow students is also a thing now.  Sometimes the people you know can be even more dangerous than people you don’t know.

I also thought Johnson did a remarkable job of making a story told from about half a dozen points of view so easy to follow.  Each of the voices was so distinctive and so authentic – from the class troublemaker to the diehard party girl, all the way to the high school English teacher.  If I was reading from the point of view of an adolescent male, it truly felt like I was reading the thoughts of an adolescent male, and if I was reading from the point of view of a young English teacher, it felt like I was inside that teacher’s mind reading her thoughts.  None of the voices came across as generic or forced.

Another strength of the novel is that Johnson is actually able to portray these teens in a way that I still felt a tremendous amount of empathy for them even after what they did to Tristan.  That’s not to say that I necessarily found any of them all that likeable, but I did feel for them as they struggled to make it through high school and live up to everyone’s expectation.  Whether it’s the pressure to be as successful as their parents expect them to be or the pressure to live up to a certain reputation, or perhaps even live down gossip that is flowing around the internet about them, the pressure is always present in some form or another.  In some cases, the pressures at home are just as bad, if not worse, than the pressures at school.  I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I’m keeping this general, but the way Johnson portrays high school and the dangers of peer pressure, it’s basically a battlefield and you’re lucky if your child makes it out in one piece.  It’s a very powerful read in that sense.

I also thought the portrayal of teachers was pretty realistic.  I don’t know the exact statistics but I know the burnout rate for new teachers is super high and some of the things Molly Nicoll experiences are surely contributing factors to those statistics.  The desire to connect with her students leads her to cross lines that she probably shouldn’t be crossing because she’s so desperate to reach them.  We need good teachers who can make a different in their students’ lives, but one of the older, more experienced teachers points out to Molly, she’s never going to make it long term if she keeps doing things the way she’s doing them.  High school will chew her up and spit her out just like it does the students.

What I Didn’t Like:

As much as I enjoyed the read, there were still a couple of problem areas for me.  One is that I like to be able to connect with characters and relate to them as I’m reading.  Because there were so many different points of view, it was harder to do that in this book. I never really felt like I got close enough to any of them to do that.  Stylistically though, I’m thinking maybe that was intentional. I think maybe getting too attached to any of the characters would possibly make the reader lose focus on the overall bigger picture. Ultimately I think it was the right choice for the book; it just didn’t play into my own personal preference for that connection to the characters.

A second issue I had was that I would have liked to see a more diverse student population.  I know all of the issues highlighted in this book are chronic issues throughout our school systems, both the wealthy and the poor districts, so I would have liked to see more of a cross-section of our overall student population instead of so many rich, privileged kids.  I think having a more diverse population represented would highlight that these problems are widespread, not just localized to the wealthy and privileged of our society. Again, that’s just a personal preference for me and it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book overall.

Who Would I Recommend this Book to?

Because of its emphasis on the dangers of bullying and especially cyberbullying, I would recommend this book to parents of middle and high school students, as well as to the students in those same age ranges.  Students need to understand the power of their own words, especially the negative words, and parents need to start hammering that into their kids’ heads at an early age.  The wrong words to the wrong person can set into motion life-altering and often tragic events.  In the case of this story, Tristan Bloch chose to end his life, but he could have just as easily come back to school the next day with a gun…

 

Rating:  3.5 stars

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Random House, and Lindsey Lee Johnson for the opportunity to review this book on my blog.

 

 

 

three-half-stars

About Lindsey Lee Johnson

Lindsey Lee Johnson holds a master of professional writing degree from the University of Southern California and a BA in English from the University of California at Davis. She has served as a tutor and mentor at a private learning center, where her focus has been teaching writing to teenagers. Born and raised in Marin County, she now lives with her husband in Los Angeles.

Review: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Review:  Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo MbueBehold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
four-stars
Published by Random House on August 23rd 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 380
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis: 

A compulsively readable debut novel about marriage, immigration, class, race, and the trapdoors in the American Dream—the unforgettable story of a young Cameroonian couple making a new life in New York just as the Great Recession upends the economy.

Named one of BuzzFeed’s “Incredible New Books You Need to Read This Summer”.

Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son. In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark demands punctuality, discretion, and loyalty—and Jende is eager to please. Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Neni temporary work at the Edwardses’ summer home in the Hamptons. With these opportunities, Jende and Neni can at last gain a foothold in America and imagine a brighter future.

However, the world of great power and privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ façades.

When the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Jongas are desperate to keep Jende’s job—even as their marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.

* * * * *

My Review:

Behold the Dreamers is a powerful and moving read that follows the struggles of an immigrant family trying their hardest to achieve the American Dream and create the best life they can for themselves and for their children. Aside from the gorgeous writing of the author Imbolo Mbue, the power of this novel lies in the fact that it is so very relevant right now, especially when you consider this year’s U.S. Presidential race and the two candidates’ very different views about immigrants.

I fell in love with Mbue’s protagonist, Jende Jonga, right away.  Jende is a kind man, a wonderful husband and father, and he firmly believes that the American Dream is within his family’s reach if they work hard and play by the rules. In the opening chapters, Jende is attempting to secure a job as a chauffeur for a big Wall Street executive at Lehman Brothers, a job that would be a huge step up for him as he had previously been driving taxi cabs for much less money.  I admired his persistence and determination, especially since his future in the U.S. is tentative at best until he secures a green card, and so I immediately became invested in wanting him to succeed.

Jende’s wife, Neni, is equally likeable.  She is in the U.S. on a student visa and is studying with the intention of eventually becoming a pharmacist.  Like Jende, Neni works as hard as she can and is very disciplined, her sole focus on doing whatever needs to be done to achieve her family’s dream of becoming American citizens.  In the early chapters, we see Neni pulling all nighters to make sure she gets top marks in all of her classes and she works all sorts of jobs on the side in order to bring in extra money for the family.

What I liked most about Mbue’s portrayal of Jende and Neni, however, is that she doesn’t over-romanticize the couple.  They sometimes make bad decisions, lose their tempers, can sometimes be too gullible or naïve, and therefore come across as somewhat flawed and very relatable.

Another aspect of the novel that appealed to me was the subtle building of suspense throughout the novel.  Is Jende going to get his green card? Is Neni going to be able to stay in school?  What is going on in the financial world at Lehman Brothers and is it going to affect Jende’s job security and therefore his family’s chance to achieve the American Dream? The momentum that these questions generated kept pulling me quickly through the story because I was so worried about whether or not Jende and Neni were going to make it.  I was especially tuned in to what the Lehman Brothers fall out might mean for them because I lost my own job back in 2008 because of it and ended up draining my 401k and savings to stay afloat until the economy righted itself.  As crushing as it was for me as an American citizen, I couldn’t imagine how hard it would be for someone in Jende and Neni’s shoes.  Mbue did a fantastic job of conveying all of the uncertainty and unease of that time in our recent history.

Aside from the character development and the suspense, overall I think what makes Behold the Dreamers such a poignant and moving read is the message that there are people out there fighting so hard to secure the best lives possible for their family – to have even a fraction of what most of us take for granted every day.  The story puts the reader in the shoes of every immigrant that has come here in search of the American Dream and hopefully creates a sense of empathy as the reader sees firsthand exactly what they have to go through on the uncertain path to citizenship.

Behold the Dreamers is definitely a book that I would recommend to pretty much anyone who enjoys a moving story about family, dreams, obstacles, and perseverance.  Imbolo Mbue is a gifted writer and I really look forward to reading more from her.

Rating:  A strong 4 stars!

Thanks so much to Random House, Netgalley, and of course Imbolo Mbue for allowing me the opportunity to read and review Behold the Dreamers.

four-stars

About Imbolo Mbue

imbolo mbue

Imbolo Mbue is a native of Limbe, Cameroon. She holds a B.S. from Rutgers University and an M.A. from Columbia University. A resident of the United States for over a decade, she lives in New York City.

Behold the Dreamers is her first novel.

Waiting on Wednesday – Spotlight on “The Mothers” by Brit Bennett

New WoW“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, which encourages fellow bloggers to spotlight upcoming releases that we’re excited about.

My “Waiting On” Wednesday selection for this week is The Mothers by Brit Bennett.  Why am I so excited for this novel?  Well, as if the blurb below isn’t enticing enough on its own, I was lucky enough to read an excerpt of The Mothers in Buzz Books 2016: Fall/Winter catalog.  As I was reading, I was just instantly struck by how beautiful, powerful, and honest Bennett’s writing is.  As soon as I finished the excerpt, I immediately wanted more.  I’m glad I don’t have too much longer to wait because I think The Mothers is going to end up being one of my favorite reads of 2016.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

mothers th

Publication Date: October 11, 2016

From Amazon:

A dazzling debut novel from an exciting new voice, The Mothers is a surprising story about young love, a big secret in a small community – and the things that ultimately haunt us most.

Set within a contemporary black community in Southern California, Brit Bennett’s mesmerizing first novel is an emotionally perceptive story about community, love, and ambition. It begins with a secret.

“All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we’d taken a moment to swish this one around our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season.”

It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother’s recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor’s son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it’s not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance—and the subsequent cover-up—will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.

In entrancing, lyrical prose, The Mothers asks whether a “what if” can be more powerful than an experience itself. If, as time passes, we must always live in servitude to the decisions of our younger selves, to the communities that have parented us, and to the decisions we make that shape our lives forever.

* * * * *

Check out this advanced praise for The Mothers!

One of Buzzfeed’s “21 New Books You Need to Read this Fall”

One of The Millions‘ “Most Anticipated” for the second half of 2016

“Brit Bennett is a brilliant and much-needed new voice in literature.” -Angela Flournoy, author of National Book Award-finalist The Turner House

* * * * *

I’d love to hear what upcoming book releases you’re waiting on this Wednesday? Leave me your link in the comments below and I’ll stop by and check out your WoW selection for this week. 🙂