Inexcusable by Chris Lynch

“Sometimes you get caught.  Caught up in moments, in the whirlwind of events.  Caught unawares.  It’s just not you but wrong place, wrong time, wrong company can really easily add up to giving people the wrong idea about yourself.  And yet again the way things look drift away from the way things really are.”

Kier is a high school senior, a football player, and what he liked to consider as a “good boy”.  But he’s done something terribly, awfully wrong-something that can’t be undone.  He raped a friend.  He committed date rape on the night of his graduation.

In this short, tense book, Kier sets out to reconcile what he thought of himself-just a good kid, a polite guy, maybe sometimes drinks a little too much, but nothing serious-with what has actually happened.  He might have mixed drugs and alcohol.  He might have followed the example of his father, who’s been drinking since Kier’s mom died.  He might even be spoiled, as one of his sisters says.  However, blaming his actions on drinking and friends is too simplistic, and that’s just what this book explores.  There are even other contributing factors: Kier has rarely heard the word “no” before.  He was emotionally distressed at the time.  He had been able to rationalize previous misbehaviors as “just playing around”. But the title says it all-it’s inexcusable.

Kier’s reasoning is unnerving; the intimate view of his thoughts reveals just how easy it is to believe a story you tell yourself, especially when the truth has the potential to ruin your life.  For almost the entirety of the book, he insists he hasn’t done anything wrong.  While he’s denying everything, he tells us the story. The effect of his self-deception is chilling.

A review on the inside cover of the text suggests reading this book as a companion piece to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, a story of rape from a young woman’s perspective.  I think it would be a very good pairing for a high school classroom.  Definitely not fun, but an important topic to address.  Both books force readers to think, rather than automatically categorize actions as either good or bad.  Lynch demonstrates that someone with only the best of motives can still do irreparable harm.  “Furthermore, both books are highly-regarded award-winners; Inexcusable was a National Book Award finalist, as well as an ALA “Best Book”.

Happy Reading!

Lynch, Chris. Inexcusable. Simon & Schuster: New York, 2005. 165 pp.

If you’d like to read another book like this, try Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak.  For books about teens who’ve committed grave errors and are now ruminating about them, try Monster by Walter Dean Myers, or After by Amy Efaw.

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Boy21 by Matthew Quick

“‘I love watching you play ball, Finley.  Best part of my days lately-makes me feel like I still have legs, even-but life’s more than games.  This Russ, he’s special.  Anyone can see that.  And it’s hard to be special, Finley. You understand what I’m saying?’

I don’t understand what Pop is saying, but I nod anyway.

‘You’re special too, Finley.  You don’t get to pick the role you’re going to play in life, but it’s good to play whatever role you got the best way you can,’ Pop says. ‘And I know I’m a damn hypocrite for saying that tonight, but that don’t make what I said a lie.  We’ve both had hard lives so far.  No favors done for either of us.'”

This book has been waiting on my shelf for months, so that I could review it on its birthday: today (well, yesterday-I caught a cold and couldn’t get it written in time!)  is the day Boy21 comes into the world! Here it is, friends!  I’m so happy to get to stop waiting and tell you all about it! Hold on to your hats-here’s the story:

Finley lives for basketball.  The repetition and movement calm him and keep him from thinking about all of the darkness he keeps pushed to the borders of his mind.  He is so focused that he even breaks up with his girlfriend at the beginning of each basketball season; the game becomes his temporary new sweetheart. You can’t blame him for it, really: he doesn’t have much else to give him hope.  He lives in Bellmont, a city in the shadow of the powerful Irish mob.  In Bellmont, if the drugs don’t get you first, the mafia probably will.  Finley’s world consists of basketball, caring for his disabled grandfather, and hoping that he and his sweetheart can somehow find a way out, to a better life.

Enter Russ: a supremely talented basketball player with some exceptionally bizarre personal habits.  He lost his parents in a tragedy that he doesn’t speak about, and has moved to Bellmont to try and patch back together his life.  He doesn’t fit in-he’s far wealthier than any of the other students, and it is hard to conceal his prep-school education.  Furthermore, he refers to himself as Boy21, an extraterrestrial being sent to earth to learn about human emotions.  However strange he may appear to be, he seems to be just what Finley needs, and the two bond as they weather life-altering tragedies during the course of the story.

I hadn’t even finished the review before two different friends of mine tried to snatch this book off the desk and carry it away.  I can’t blame them, though.  You might remember Sorta Like a Rock Star, a book I read last summer. It instantly became a favorite of mine, and I do like to think that I’m pretty careful about what ends up on the favorites list.  Well, here is another book by the same author, friends.  Now, I’m convinced he is a stealth champion for the good in humanity, from the books he’s given us.  Boy21 doesn’t disappoint, that’s for sure.  It contains basketball, but it’s not really about it.  Instead, it’s about hope, and wrestling with those dark parts within-you know, the ones that want us only to look out for ourselves, even when it means hurting another human in the process.  Add in stargazing, references to The Little Prince, and the belief that we are all capable of changing, and you’ve got a unique, compelling story that you can finish in a day.

It’s hard to find a book that will appeal to the discerning set of young teenagers, much less a story that has the potential to captivate both male and female readers, without containing so much sex or violence that it will terrify school boards.  So here, dear ones, is quite a find. Equal appeal for both genders, an original plot, and characters that are quirky and endearing, but not merely for the sake of cuteness.  In this book, quirk is a survival mechanism, and the beautiful underlying message is that there are other potential responses to tragedy besides hardening one’s heart.  (When I say messages, don’t take it to mean “didactic”, because it’s certainly not-besides, teens can smell that business a mile away.) Anyway, I think you’re going to love it!  (If you do, watch out for Matthew Quick’s The Silver Linings Playbook-it is going to be a movie soon!  And while you’re waiting, here are some books that I think you’ll like, if you liked the sound of this one:

Of course: Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick.  It’s an entirely different sort of plot, but it makes you feel the same way as Boy21 does.  If you liked the sports part, you could try The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and also Mexican White Boy by Matt de la Pena.  And come on, why not give The Little Princea try, too? There’s enough to love in there to break your heart forever.

Update:  Matt de la Pena, author of Mexican White Boy, reviewed Boy21 in The New York Times.  Check it out!

Quick, Matthew. Boy21. New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012. 256 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://matthewquickwriter.com

Mexican White Boy by Matt de la Pena

“And if people only knew how that felt.  Having the whole family stare at him and his tortilla, these people he adores.  That’s when he wishes he didn’t get such good grades.  When he wishes he lived even closer to the border than they did…When he wishes he got in more trouble at school.”

Danny’s mother is white, and his father is Mexican.  He goes to a fancy private school in San Diego, where he’s the only boy with brown skin.  His passion is baseball; he’s got a killer arm, but didn’t make the school team because he can’t always control his pitch.

When his mom and sister go to San Francisco for the summer to be with her new boyfriend, Danny decided to go stay with his cousins instead.  He didn’t ever feel at home in San Diego, but he doesn’t speak Spanish and so he doesn’t feel like he fits in with the National City side of his family, either.  However, he meets an unlikely ally-a boy named Uno, who starts off by beating him up over an accident.  The two team up and become fast friends, working up a hustle based on Danny’s pitching.  Together, they trick high school baseball players into betting that Danny can’t strike them out.  See, they need the money: Uno’s trying to save up enough money to visit his father, and Danny’s doing the same thing.  The one thing that Danny doesn’t know is that his father didn’t run off to Mexico; he’s actually in jail.  When he finally learns it, it changes everything, and Danny has to work hard to figure out who he is and what he should do with his life.  The summer passes in a mix of baseball, girls, family, and identity-formation.

So, normally, I don’t like sports books.  I just can’t get into them.  I was doubtful for the first chapter of the book, but then I was completely hooked.  It’s a great story.  It’s a coming-of-age story, full of Danny’s problems with his identity and how he fits into the world, but it’s never sappy or trite.  He has a very real, believable voice, and is surrounded by well-developed, realistic characters.  It’s a fantastic story, and I totally get why YALSA picked it as a Best Book.  There’s some rough stuff about self-injury (not terribly graphic) and issues with spousal abuse and some underage drinking, so this book is probably better for the 15 and up crowd.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.mattdelapena.com/

de la Pena, Matt. Mexican White Boy. Delacorte: New York, 2008.  252 pp. Ages 15 and up.  ISBN 978-0385733106.

If you liked this book, check out another book by de la Pena called Ball Don’t Lie or The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez by Alan Lawrence Sitomer.