Book Review: Random by Tom Leveen

Tom Leveen
Simon Pulse,
ISBN 978-1-4424-9956-0

From the publisher—

Late at night Tori receives a random phone call. It’s a wrong number. But the caller seems to want to talk, so she stays on the line.

He asks for a single thing—one reason not to kill himself.

The request plunges her into confusion. Because if this random caller actually does what he plans, he’ll be the second person connected to Tori to take his own life. And the first just might land her in jail. After her Facebook page became Exhibit A in a tragic national news story about cyberbullying, Tori can’t help but suspect the caller is a fraud. But what if he’s not? Her words alone may hold the power of life or death.

With the clock ticking, Tori has little time to save a stranger—and maybe redeem herself—leading to a startling conclusion that changes everything…

Not guilty doesn’t mean you’re innocent.

That tagline says a lot about the story in Random, the concept that you can be guilty in a sense even if not technically speaking. In this case, Tori can’t admit to anyone, much less herself, that her own behavior contributed to the conditions that led a classmate to commit suicide. Tomorrow morning, she’ll be appearing before a judge to enter a plea to the charges against her; her parents are trying very hard to keep the family on an even keel but Tori’s brother, Jack, cannot bring himself to forgive what she has done or her attitude since.

Attitude is the crux of the problem because Tori is completely oblivious to the pain she caused Kevin, the boy who started high school alongside her with some hope and a good deal of apprehension, or perhaps it would be better to say she’s just about as shallow as a person can get. Sure, she’s upset about what’s to come tomorrow but not because of what happened to Kevin. She’s upset because (1) she’s being blamed, (2) her so-called friends, the people she was trying so hard to impress, are not reaching out to her and (3) everybody’s being mean to her, taking away her computer, making her use an old cellphone that <gasp> only makes phone calls, talking about her to the press. In short, Tori is living in a poor-pitiful-me world. Then comes the call from a stranger, the call that will demand much of Tori.

Tori is a very interesting character, largely because she’s so self-centered, so focused on what’s happening to her with very little concern for the people around her. When Jack tries to tell her how he felt abandoned by her when school was tough for him, she doesn’t get it. She also doesn’t get that Noah, her only remaining friend, cares a great deal for her or that Andrew, the guy on the other end of the phone call, might do something terrible if she can’t stop him. Actually, she does get that last part but she’s mostly concerned about how it will look if she’s connected to a second suicide.

Andrew himself is an enigma. Is he really about to commit suicide or is this a setup meant to harass Tori? At one moment, I empathized with him and, at the next, I thought he was really dicey, someone not to be trusted, then I’d bounce back the other way again. Jack, on the other hand, had my sympathies all along. He was a victim in more than one way and I truly understood why he felt as he did about his sister.

The real class act here is Noah, a boy who clearly cared about Tori and wished her well, a boy who would go to great lengths to make things a little better for her. Noah is a character I could love.

Will Tori finally understand why she’s in trouble, what she did to Kevin, or even just grow up a little and become a decent human being? The answers may or may not come but the tale of her very long night is worth putting up with this girl. I’d never read anything by Tom Leveen before but he has a new fan because he made me look just a little bit below the surface.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2015.

Book Reviews: Irises by Francisco X. Stork and Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg

Francisco X. Stork
Arthur A. Levine Books, January 2012
ISBN 978-0-545-15135-1

Some people are raised to believe that all matters are black and white.  This is good, that is bad.  This is acceptable, that is not.  Someone is either alive, or he is dead. From the outside looking in, this may appear to be oppressive.  On the other hand, these people already have all of the answers, they know what they can do, and what they cannot—it is that simple.  Until it isn’t.

Kate and Mary are sisters, raised by a very strict Protestant Reverend and his dutiful wife.  In their mother, they found joy.  Kate and her mother shared a special, secret dream.  Together, they talked of Kate attending Stanford and becoming a doctor.  Mary also shared her dream with her mother, only it was no secret.  Mary is an extraordinary artist, particularly for her young age.  She sees a light around people and is able to subtly work that into her paintings.  Mother is proud of Mary and she enthusiastically supports her younger daughter.  Father thinks painting is a waste of time and he simply assumes that Kate will follow his plan; stay active in church, get married and raise a family. So, for a while, Kate and Mary have the simplicity of knowing what is acceptable and what is not and they experience joy and fantasies with their mother.

A terrible accident leaves their mom in a vegetative state with only a part-time nurse to help the girls care for her needs.  Poor health has father meeting his maker while sixteen year old Mary sits by his side.  Two years her senior, Mary looks to Kate to figure out how they will get by.  Their house belongs to the church, Kate has Stanford waiting and Mary is too young to be on her own; but finding someone to take her and her mother in seems impossible.

Mr. Stork masterfully captures the stoicism and detachment that, at first, encompass the household.  By sprinkling in bits of family history, he coaxes empathy from the reader.  The girls’ characters develop as they struggle to leave the confines of their black and white world and make decisions they’ve never imagined. Kate’s use of her newfound freedom may amplify their troubles.  The choices they are faced with could bring them closer, or forever rip them apart.

I found this story to be enlightening and compelling.  I will certainly pick up another Francisco X. Stork book.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2013.


Revenge of the Girl with the Great PersonalityRevenge of the Girl With the Great Personality
Elizabeth Eulberg
Point/Scholastic, March 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-47699-7

Yes.  The book is as good as the title.  I love a story of self-discovery and acceptance through trial and error.  Revenge of the Girl With the Great Personality centers around that theme, but is so much more.

Lexi is an almost-typical teen living with an atypical family.  Her narcissistic, unhappy mother that tries valiantly to live vicariously through her youngest daughter is easy to despise, yet somehow, manages to elicit a bit of empathy here and there.  The young sister appears as a despicable, spoiled brat; but, there may be hope for her. One of Lexi’s best friends, Benny, steals the show.  The Beautiful People are well depicted, with each adding unique traits to enrich the story.

I found this book compelling.  I enjoyed the layers of Lexi: the “adult” and the big sister at home, the Great Personality at school and work.  Lexi hadn’t initiated a journey of self-discovery, which (to me) makes the tale so much cooler.  Her transformation is immediate and stunning.  Effects are varied, resulting in confusion, hurt feelings and lots of attention.  Fortunately, Lexi’s drastic change encourages her not only to truly examine herself, but to take a hard look at real friends versus Beautiful People.

I admire the way the author captured true teen personalities, without resorting to the use of crude and lazy conversations that I’ve come to expect from Middle School and High School students (Don’t misunderstand, I do love the crazy kids.)  Ms. Eulberg’s writing weaves in small details that enhance the story.  Benny’s t-shirts make me smile, and the chapter titles are hilarious.  I couldn’t wait to see if Lexi’s 180 became a 360, or if she could create a middle ground.  Rooting for her to summon the courage to speak her mind to those she finds oppressive, I forfeited sleep to see how her story would end.  I am not sorry for that, I liked everything about this book.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2013.