The First Part Last by Angela Johnson


Bobby is a pretty normal 16-year-old boy growing up in New York City. He plays a little basketball, he likes to hang out at the arcade with his best friends, and he’s getting by in high school. But his life changes very quickly when he learns that his girlfriend, Nia, is having a baby.

Bobby is a thoughtful young man, and he has a lot to think about as he tries to grow up very quickly. His love for his baby daughter, Feather, is strong, but it’s tough for a sixteen year old to always make the right choices.  And being responsible for another person means that the stakes for his choices are suddenly much higher.

Bobby does screw up sometimes in the book, but The First Part Last is not really a book about plot or action. The narrative is not linear – it slides around between his life before Feather was born and his life now. Each short chapter illuminates a small part of how Bobby is dealing with his new responsibilities. Nia appears only in the “then” chapters that take place before Feather is born, and the reader doesn’t learn why until a devastating series of chapters near the end of the book, including a single chapter from Nia’s perspective. It’s a beautiful, poetically written book, like all of Angela Johnson’s novels. The short chapters, realistic and engaging subject matter, likeable narrator, and the length of the book would seem to make it a great pick for reluctant readers, but I think the constant time shifts and the lack of a straightforward plot might be a little bit confusing for some readers.

A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly


Mattie Gokey is desperate to earn enough money to escape her tiny North Woods town and attend college in New York. Her dream is to be a writer, but in reality she is caring for her younger sisters and helping her father run the family farm. When she goes off to work at a popular summer resort camp to earn money for a new mule, Molly meets a young couple, and Grace, the young lady, gives Mattie a bundle of letters to burn. However, before Mattie gets around to burning the letters, Grace Brown turns up drowned in a boating accident on the lake, and her boyfriend is no where to be found. Reading the letters, Mattie discovers that Grace was murdered. Grace’s story, combined with Mattie’s own blossoming relationship with a local farmboy, make Mattie question whether relationships are harmful to women.

Donnelly’s narrative is complex and nonlinear, shifting seamlessly from Mattie’s life on the farm to her life at the hotel in the wake of Grace Brown’s murder. The parallel narratives of Grace Brown’s doomed relationship, Mattie’s confusing relationship with Royal, and the several other romantic relationships that are scattered through the text are skillfully woven, and the book is beautifully written. I did feel a little bit beat over the head by the “marriage is bad for women!” message of the book. While choosing not to pursue a relationship with Royal is part of Mattie’s journey, and the relationships of Grace Brown, Mattie’s teacher, and other women are illuminating to that journey, the exploration of this theme felt very one-sided.

The book was based on an actual 1906 murder, which was also explored in Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.

I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak


Ed Kennedy is a nineteen-year-old cabdriver and perpetual underachiever. His best friend is a smelly old dog, and his only social interactions are card nights and getting yelled at by his mom. But shortly after he stops an incompetent bank robber, Ed’s life changes abruptly. Someone is sending him playing cards in the mail, and those cards send him on a mission through his run-down Australian town. Every card connects him to four people, and Ed makes a difference in each person’s life. These connections are also starting to shake Ed out of his complacent existence. But he has no idea where the cards are coming from, or to what they might be leading him.

The set-up for this book was original and interesting, and Ed is the kind of lovable loser who inspires compassion in readers. He’s also a funny, self-deprecating narrator. I did have a few quarrels with the book. While the process of seeking out the people from each card and connecting with them was subtle and compelling, the tactics of the mysterious person who sends Ed the cards took away from my enjoyment of the novel. I never understood why there was a threatening figure telling Ed what to do, it was never made completely clear why Ed was chosen by this figure, and his motives were never explained. It is intimated by the text that this figure is the author, but this idea is never really explored. The scene where the mystery man meets with Ed feels heavy-handed and resolves little. I would have preferred either more or less resolution – either resolve the matter completely, or leave it open-ended. My other, much smaller quibble was with the author’s consistent use of very short paragraphs and sentences broken into pieces in order to place emphasis. This is a pet peeve of mine, and it was a device used often enough for me to find it distracting. Despite these issues, I found Zusak’s novel thoughtful and Ed’s journey moving.