Review: The Breaking of Liam Glass by Charles Harris

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I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

The Breaking of Liam Glass
by Charles Harris

Marble City Publishing, 2017

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The verdict: Poignant and biting satire that brings laughter, sadness, and—most importantly—a strong call for change.

Going in, I knew The Breaking of Liam Glass was a satire, but for whatever reason, I expected an over-the-top detective spoof. What I found instead was a tight and suspenseful noir, featuring sharp wit and spot-on social commentary. Harris dives into London’s underbelly without the story ever feeling seedy or unfair, and as a result, he creates a brilliant novel on the press and perception, a tale of “fake news” that’s all too rooted in reality. I can see Harris’s background as a screenwriter in the close third-person narration hopping from character to character without ever breaking the action. Without giving any spoilers, I’ll say that after racing to the finish line I felt more lost than found. Maybe that’s the point. Liam Glass entertains and unsettles, and, as a society, we have to fight against the current.

It’s the spring of 2010 in London. Fourteen-year-old Liam Glass disappears while making a late-night ATM run for his mom, and the authorities soon find him stabbed and barely hanging on to life. Small-time journalist Jason Crowthorne catches a whiff of the story and decides this could finally be his big break. When a major sports agent offers his support, Jason crafts a heartwrenching narrative that will finally earn him professional recognition and his daughter’s approval—never minding whether or not the story has any ounce of truth to it. Yet as rumors circulate and actual facts come to light, Jason discovers the sea’s full of sharks, and he’s not the only one willing to use a fabricated headline to skyrocket his career. In a race against the deadline, Jason’s willingness to risk it all soon shows he has more to lose than he ever thought possible.

Home was a small studio flat in an old conversion; four very basic rooms reached by a fire escape. Jason ran up the steps, slammed the front door shut behind him. Then he pulled out his camera and looked again at the picture of the kid under the oxygen mask. He had a nose for stories, a good one. Maybe it hadn’t been twitching much recently, but he knew what worked and what didn’t.

As a character, Jason’s crafty and desperate, but sometimes his internal deliberations grow a bit tiresome. He’s neither horrible in a way that’s delightful nor hapless in a way that’s endearing. Much of what happens really is his fault, and it took a long while before I was ever on his side. Harris delivers the story over an improbably action-packed 24 hours, unfolding a domino effect of one bad choice after another. Nearly every character is self-seeking in some way or another, but nobody’s all bad. It’s a cast of people doing the wrong things for the right reasons, or maybe the right ones for the wrong reasons, or maybe real life’s as gray and sloppy as London in the rain. The Breaking of Liam Glass holds the tension of our sensational tabloid addiction alongside a bitter apathy toward progress. Recommended for anyone with a passion for current events, or anyone brave enough to hold a mirror to society, if only to find a way to break it.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Charles Harris’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

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Wonder
by R.J. Palacio

Knopf, 2012

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The verdict: A memorable portrait of human dignity—children’s literature that knows kids are smart enough to understand the world they live in.

So why add another review to the internet of this already smash-hit, critically-acclaimed novel? Wonder the movie is hitting theaters next month, in case people haven’t heard of it. I wanted to read it, but I wasn’t sure if I’d take the time to review it. That changed once I started. As a middle school teacher—as a human being—I must champion R.J. Palacio’s timeless message. Some books deserve the hype, and Wonder lives up to its name. Parents, your kids must read this book. Read this book with your kids even, then discuss it as a family. It’s rare to find literature that distills the complicated themes of life into such simple truths, and a novel that does so makes a powerful treasure.

Born with a facial deformity, 5th grader August Pullman enrolls in a private school to attend classes outside his home for the first time. While adults do their best to not notice and students make no secret of their curiosity and horror, Auggie wants nothing more than to just be ordinary. Soon Julian, a teacher’s pet when instructors are looking and a horrible bully when they’re not, leads a charge to ostracize the new student, and even the friends Auggie thinks he can count on wear masks of their own. Meanwhile, Auggie’s sister Via struggles to adjust to a new high school and the pains of growing up. The point of view changes as the narrative unfolds, allowing the voices of Auggie’s classmates to intersect and craft a heart-wrenching tour of empathy and human dignity. Written at the middle-grade level, this beautiful coming-of-age story speaks to kids and adults alike.

“Like a lamb to the slaughter: Something that you say about someone who goes somewhere calmly, not knowing that something unpleasant is going to happen to them. I Googled it last night. That’s what I was thinking when Ms. Petosa called my name and suddenly it was my turn to talk.”

Told in short vignettes with a relatable middle school voice, Palacio’s novel captures the rapid change-of-subject and constant ups and downs of life from a kid’s point of view. Readers hear first from Auggie, then from his sister Via—whose section beautifully depicts the mess of compassion and resentment that comes with having a sibling who needs special care—and then from the perspectives of two of Auggie’s schoolmates, Via’s boyfriend, and her ex-best friend. Some expanded editions even include the ebook known as The Julian Chapter, giving voice to Auggie’s main tormentor.

Nothing about the story feels forced or contrived. Palacio builds her narrative on ordinary conflicts: shifting friend groups, arguments with parents, a sick family dog. Put together, the chapters touch on all aspects of identity from race and class to which lunch table a student belongs. At times I wanted a bit more pep in the plot; nothing terrifying or particularly unusual happens, especially when compared to other classic novels of its type. Yet the pedestrian tour of Auggie’s universe works to extend its humanity. While one might think Wonder is just a metaphor for how we all feel like the outcast sometimes, it bravely goes beyond that expectation by featuring themes about kindness and courage. The other narrators see just as much transformation as August does, and at times they’re even more likeable. Creative in form and content, Wonder is a twenty-first-century tale that bridges gaps across generations, fighting for every kid to take a turn in the spotlight. Recommended for middle school and high elementary school readers, especially for class or book reports.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out R.J. Palacio’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.

Black Swan Green
by David Mitchell

Random House, 2006

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The verdict: Heartfelt, accessible, and deeply compelling, Mitchell’s coming-of-age novel is an all-around triumph.

Let me start by saying I’m a huge David Mitchell fanboy. I’m consistently blown away by his raw talent, endless creativity, and sheer ambition as a writer. Having read other titles prior to this one, I knew I’d be predisposed to love Black Swan Green, but it still managed to surprise me. I didn’t grow up in 1980s England, but I had no trouble relating to the protagonist or seeing the world through his eyes. Some have compared Mitchell’s coming-of-age novel to Catcher in the Rye, and I’d dare to say it’s better. I found it more approachable, more universally appealing, and, frankly, more entertaining than the classic American Bildungsroman (I’m an English literature teacher, so I don’t say that lightly).

The novel follows 13-year-old Jason Taylor for one year (13 months to be exact—each chapter is its own episode that contributes to the larger narrative) in the small town of Black Swan Green. Jason worries about his rank in the social hierarchy of his school and how to fit in despite his stammer. He writes poetry but hides it under a pseudonym; he fears failure, exposure, and rejection, yet through a nonstop whirl of adventures must learn to experience and overcome all three. The scenes range from a tense family dinner with visiting relatives to a bizarre afternoon spent hiking down a horseback riding trail, with everything from the nighttime hazing of a secret club to a life-changing occurrence at a town fair in between. Jason accidentally breaks his grandfather’s treasured watch and then seeks to replace it before his parents find out. As the story progresses, Jason himself must break, sometimes forcibly and sometimes by choice, wondering if anything in life can ever be put back to the way it once was.

“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready.'”

Mitchell’s achievement comes in how brilliantly he interweaves events of personal and global significance—Jason’s parents’ impending divorce, the growing conflict in the Falklands—without ever breaking the enchantment of the narrative. The slang fits without being distracting, and the reader stays just enough ahead to appreciate the joys and horrors of being a kid without exactly knowing how the story will end. Each of the chapters absorbs in its own way, from the ugly brutality of school bullies to the shy awkwardness of a first kiss, and the final tapestry is a timeless portrait of adolescence. Poignant throughout and a little bizarre in some parts, Black Swan Green is empathetic without sacrificing action and thought-provoking without sacrificing wit. To offer a criticism, I might say that the ending doesn’t pack a mind-blowing punch that will fundamentally change the way readers see the world, but I still found it satisfying. The subtlety provides a different kind of thesis. A 13-year-old doesn’t figure life out in a year, and that’s okay. Mitchell assures that, in the end, everything will be alright—but we’re still on the journey, and it’s not the end yet. I don’t have to be 13 to agree with that. Best suited for advanced teen readers and adults who appreciate literary prose, Black Swan Green is a rich depiction of a season of life and well worth the visit.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out David Mitchell’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.
If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.