Murderino Mayhem

30037870Allegedly, by Tiffany D. Jackson (2017)

Opening line: “Some children are born bad, plain and simple.”

Ever since a grad school friend visited last month and introduced me to the My Favorite Murder podcast, I’ve been a little true crime crazy. I finally watched The People vs OJ Simpson on Netflix and have been diving into some deep Wikipedia holes. So when Allegedly was selected as our next book club read, I was stoked.

Mary Addison was nine when the infant daughter of her mother’s friend was found murdered in Mary’s home. Mary’s distraught mother told police that Mary and the baby, Alyssa, had been alone in Mary’s room sleeping. But now, baby Alyssa was dead, due to asphyxiation, not to mention the purple bruises covering her tiny body. Something terrible happened, and Mary’s not talking.

The public outrage over the murder quickly convicts young Mary of this horrifying crime, and she is sentenced to six years in “baby jail”, where she ends up spending a lot of time in isolation. when she is released, she is placed on house arrest until age 18 in a group home of other teen girls, who apparently hate her. Part of her sentencing includes daily volunteer hours at a local retirement home, where she has fallen in love with fellow parolee, Ted, and now finds herself with a baby of her own on the way. But she quickly learns that with her criminal history, the state isn’t likely going to let her keep her baby. For Mary, that’s what finally pushes her over the edge. It’s what finally pushes her to tell the truth about what happened that night seven years ago. It’s finally time that everyone knows she didn’t murder baby Alyssa.

The narrative here is incredibly compelling. We’ve got major elements of an unjust criminal justice system, mental illness, abuse, bullying, narcissism and sociopathic tendencies, race, teenage motherhood, and romance. The pages just fly. NOT TO MENTION an unreliable narrator who is clearly not telling us everything. I love stories that aren’t necessarily mysteries (where the characters are trying to solve something) but that the reader has to piece together clues and hints until the real picture unwinds. Gave me memories of Gone Girl and We Were Liars.

Like those two, this also has a twist ending. Unlike those two, this one unfortunately brought the entire thing way down for me. Without going into the specifics so as not to ruin it for you, the last chapter felt like a betrayal of the reader. The author gave us a sharp turn, without giving us the space to accommodate, which left me feeling unseated and disappointed.

Despite the jarring ending, still a worthwhile, disturbing, and quick read for any fans of the genre. 2 stars



Doing the time

Locked Up: A History of the U.S. Prison System, by Laura B. Edge (2009)

Opening line: “In September 1773, twenty-one-year old Levi Ames of Boston, Massachusetts, confessed to being a member of a gang of robbers.”

I am on the constant lookout for engaging, extended informational texts. Not only does the curriculum require it for Common Core, but to get my kids to read full-length non-fiction, it’s gotta be really good. If I was to continue my “opening line” with the rest of this first page of Edge’s history book, you would quickly find the major reason why I don’t think this one would hold up.

After the first paragraph, the short description of Levi Ames end by gallows, Edge jumps to a description of crime. And then back to the 1600s. And so she goes throughout her story. Although the basic structure of her text is chronological, Edge rather skips and hops between ideas and lacks the transitions necessary to tie these together. This can be really problematic when you are trying to convince middle schoolers to read the entire thing.

Perhaps a rare student could use this for some sort of research project. It appears to be good information and well-researched, with a full 22 pages of end matter. It’s an interesting and relevant topic — especially to those 1.5 million children who have at least one parent in prison, as Edge suggests. I can picture this topic as a thoughtful subject for project-based learning. But for pleasure reading? Not so much. I also wish there was a bit more treatment of the state of modern prisons.

Informative, but rather chaotic. 1.5 stars.

Entering the “real” world

Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork (2009)

Opening Line: “‘Marcelo, are you ready?’ I lift up my thumb. It means that I am ready.”

Marcelo loves classical music. Marcelo is fascinated by religious studies. Marcelo is really good at working with the ponies and the children at Patterson, the special school he has attended since he was a child. Marcelo has attended Patterson because he has a condition that is most closely related to Asperger’s syndrome, and Patterson is where he feels safe interacting with others.

But this summer, Marcelo’s dad, Arturo, decides it’s time for him to enter the REAL world. It’s not an unusual push for parents, but for Marcelo, the real world will be much different than anything he is used to. Entering the real world means learning the T schedule and how to navigate the city streets of Boston. It means learning the rules of common human interaction, such as using pronouns in conversation and not quoting bible passages to people at the office. It means learning new routines and even how to operate without routines.

Marcelo enters the real world as a temp in the mail room of his father’s law firm, where he meets Jasmine. Jasmine is in charge of the mail room and is not happy that Marcelo will be her charge for the summer, as she had other plans for an assistant. Despite this, Jasmine takes Marcelo under her wing, and with her encouragement, Marcelo learns he can function in mainstream society. And as he follows the buried clues of a case at the law firm, he also learns that the image he held of his father in his home life may be quite different from the “real world” Arturo.

Marcelo joins the list of novels written from the point of view of young people with a disability, a current trend in YA lit (at least on the IL state award lists … Out of My Mind, Anything but Typical, Mockingbirdto name a few). Frankly, I think the trend is wonderful. The more we can get “mainstream” kids (and adults) to see the point of views of those with disabilities — and those with disabilities seeing themselves represented in literature — the better. I’ve always thought that fiction has a spectacular way of teaching us things that are impossible for non-fiction, and Marcelo is just another instance. On top of that, this story has a fantastic mystery and gentle romance plot to boot, not to mention that it made me laugh out loud as I listened to it on my afternoon walks with the pup. All in all, A plus, Mr. Stork.

2.5 stars