There are few people who look back on high school as the best years of their life and, quite frankly, I don’t trust them. These two novels encapsulate what may or may not be the truth of high school life in America today. Is it accurate? Dear God, I hope not, but I’m so far removed from that time that all I can do is share my thoughts on them as novels. Mostly, they made me glad I made it through and have been mercifully able to forget most of it.
The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
Published by Random House
Publication date: January 10th 2017
Author Lindsey Lee Johnson is making a big statement with a title like The Most Dangerous Place on Earth. That the novel is about high school life in an affluent community north of San Francisco makes the claim feel even more dubious and left me conflicted after finishing the novel. Is the terrain of high school as deadly as truly dangerous places like Syria? No, but is Johnson trying to make a point about how perilous teenage life has become in a time of social media, online bullying and ever blurring boundaries of age appropriate behavior? That seems to be the case in this segmented novel that begins with a cohort of 8th graders and revisits them at various points in their high school careers.
Cally, Tristan, Ryan, Emma, Nick, Abby, David, Damon and Elisabeth are all students that fit neatly into their expected slots: jock, artist, athlete, smart rebel, misfit, beautiful girl. They’re taught by the popular Mr. Ellison and the newly licensed, young Miss Nicoll. In 8th grade the awkward Tristan writes Cally a letter confessing his love. This goes as badly as possible with Cally giving the letter to Ryan, a boy she likes, and Ryan planting it in Facebook, watering it with mockery and watching it spread. Tristan is unable to get past the bullying and kills himself.
Johnson feeds into the high school feel of The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by letting each of the characters narrate a chapter. As chapters shift perspective different bits of conversations and actions show up, highlighting the unreliability of each narrator. It is a fictional game of telephone where the original message is lost the further down the line it travels. Johnson also lets new teacher Molly speak, but her voice is tempered by her own insecurities and desire to be the ‘cool’ teacher which only leads to not-unexpected problems.
On the surface, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth reads like a contemporary teen life trope. It’s only when Johnson goes underneath the surface of primping, posing, boredom and excess that there are flashes of disquieting insight into why these teens act as they do:
Some hidden chord within him strummed, sending low vibrations through his body. These things were sometimes as simple as this: he wanted to see what would happen.
Is this rationale enough to explain away the destructive tendencies of bored, wealthy teens who are given everything they want without earning anything? Or more importantly, to make the reader feel that their lives take place in the most dangerous place on earth? For me, no. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is good fiction about very real young adult issues but the title, in today’s world, is so tone deaf it’s hard to ignore.
Everything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia
Published by Atria Books
Publication date: January 3rd 2017
Hattie Hoffman is one more pretty high schooler stuck in small town America who believes herself to be destined for bigger things. In fact, she’s already got a plan to head to NYC from her tiny town in Minnesota after she graduates. Not too surprisingly, because Everything You Want Me to Be is a murder mystery: Hattie doesn’t make it to NYC. Instead, she’s found dead and with such a small town the list of suspects contains only her boyfriend who was supposedly the last person to see her alive.
Author Mindy Mejia flips back and forth through the last year of Mindy’s life to expose the necessary secrets to provide tension. The problem is, they weren’t that surprising and so, did not contribute to a building of suspense. Almost everything you need to know about this novel is found in the dewy, nubile countenance on the book’s cover. Everything You Want Me to Be is worth a look if you’re addicted to light, fast, dead-high-school-good-girls-who-may-not-be-all-that-good mysteries.
The first and most important lesson in acting is to read your audience. Know what they want and give it to them…You knew you were playing it right when your audience was happy. They smiled and praised you and told each other how wonderful you were.
tanya (52 books or bust) says
I just finished The Most Dangerous Place and loved it, but boy was it horrifying. Is that what highschool is really like these days? It makes me fret as I have a 10 year old. I loved the way it was told from different characters’ points of view. The writing and insights elevated it up from just another teen novel.
She did cover a lot of facets of teen reality, but I still really wish she’d used a different title. It sounds so first world.
Ann @ Books on the Table says
Do you think it was meant ironically — in that these characters are so out of touch with reality that for them it is the most dangerous place on earth?
It could very well be. I also freely admit, that I’m hyper-sensitive these days, what with fake news/sensationalism etc. I know it’s fiction, but it felt so tone deaf. Have you read it?
Sarah's Book Shelves says
I’m still trying to decide whether to read Dangerous Place on Earth. Why are these decisions so hard?!
Shannon @ River City Reading says
So glad to see you review this already! As much as I *TELL* myself I’m interested in reading The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, I think it would annoy me to no end to read a book about a teacher in a high school. I’m probably better off skipping 😉
Susie | Novel Visits says
The Most Dangerous Place on Earth had been on my TBR list for the month, but I think I’ll skip it. I’m reading a book about self-absorbed millennials right now, and after reading your review, I don’t think I’m up for going back to high school!
It might not be right for you right now! That aside, minus the hyperbolic title, it was a really good story of how bad things can go when you mix hormones, too much money and technology.
Jennine G says
Since I avoided much drama and “bad things” in my own high school career and currently live in the high school realm as a teacher, I would say some things have become biased or common place to me. You have to really be paying attention sometimes to catch the underlying happenings. That first book you mentioned catches my attention with the shifting chapter POVs that piece stories together. Definitely want to read it.
You would have a much better perspective on it than I might have. I thought the story was great in how it covered the messiness of teenage life, but I could not let go of the title. Given what we hear and see every day I just can’t consider the life of wealthy teens to be the most dangerous place on earth.
Such a high school premise seems like scary reading to me. Kids can really ruin their lives then. I will hold off on this one for now, though I’ve heard a lot of raves about it.
I might be too terrified to read either of these. I have a 15, 13, and 11 year-old! Eek. Teens + technology scares me. One thing we have going for us, though, is that we’re not wealthy! Ha!
Probably a good idea! I might be torn between wanting to know and wanting to know nothing.
Katie @ Doing Dewey says
The Most Dangerous Place sounds too dark for me! I have a really hard time reading about bad things happening to children. I’m sorry to hear that Everything You Want Me To Be wasn’t any deeper though. I was intrigued by the description.
Katie, it’s even worse than that- it’s kids doing bad things to other kids. A very depressing view of the future.