Children's books and book reviews - reading resource for kids, teachers, librarians, parents

Young adult book reviews for ages 12 and up - middle school and high school students

*Brutal* by Michael Harmon- young adult book review  
by Michael Harmon
Grades 9+ 240 pages Knopf March 2009 Hardcover    

When life’s brutal to you, sometimes to fight back, you have to be brutally honest. That’s what sixteen-year-old Poe Holly does to cope with the injustices she faces at home and at school. Also, to separate herself from the rest of the herd and express her individualism, she is the talented lead singer of a punk band in L.A., wears black nail polish, and sometimes cuts her hair in a Mohawk. Her martyr-doctor mom would rather spend time taking care of her patients than doing things with her daughter and has, as the book opens:
“...headed to some South American jungle village to help ‘world citizens’ lance boils and disinfect festering monkey bites. All so she could come back and tell her doctor friends how she helped the underprivileged peons she looks down her long nose at.”
She’s forced to leave L.A., her band, her friends and her old high school behind, and live with her father, David, who she has not seen since she was a baby. Not that the “school” part of the whole messed up state of affairs bothers her – she’s gone through school after school, kicked out of one after the other or taken out by her mom, who always makes up some reason about the school isn’t good enough for her daughter to explain Holly’s grades and behavior. Her mom is a perfectionist when it comes to what she expects from other people - including Holly - but when it comes to herself, she missed Holly’s seventh-grade graduation because she spent “two weeks in Syria helping refugees.” Then she missed Holly’s fifteenth birthday, to spend “a month in Africa.”

Holly’s father, she learns, is a neat freak and the only counselor for all grade levels at her new high school. Besides the awkwardness of trying to get along with a father she’s practically never met, she has to have him as her counselor. Her dad seems to try to get to know Holly, fixes up a room for her and buys her a computer; but to Holly, he just seems to be attempting to buy her love. She doesn’t like the counselor persona that he’s so used to he takes home with him. Holly accuses her father and mother of scheming and using her mom’s current absence so David can try to turn Holly around and make her more “normal.”

But Holly was never one to want to fit anyone’s cookie-cutter type of mold. She meets the next door tobacco-chewing neighbor boy, who loves cheese and goes by the nickname of Velveeta, and who attends her school, and becomes friends with him. Velveeta is a very interesting character, and is the motivation for much of Holly’s actions in the novel to combat the hypocrisy and bullying at her school. Benders High gives lip service to the idea that they promote individualism and that cliques are bad, but what actually happens is everything the school and its administrators really try to do to actually brings about the opposite result. The worst bullies at Benders High, and the ones which target Velveeta the most, are the guys on the football team. He’s the particular target of an especially psychotic football player, the star of the team, Colby Morris, who beats him mercilessly and send Velveeta to the hospital.

One of Holly’s other friends is also a nonconformist with a rebellious streak. Theo Dorr, the son of the town’s mayor, is outside of cliques, being who he is, wears Black Sabbath shirts, and is a fan of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. He sees society becoming more and more like that depicted in Orwell’s masterpiece of dystopia and tries to do his bit to go against the grain. He also thinks that how Velveeta is being treated is very wrong, but that certain people get singled out at all schools and in society in general, pounced on like antelopes being attacked by lions as if they almost somehow encourage their own victimization.

Brutal is primarily targeted to teens, but it’s a novel I couldn’t put down and one that anyone who has been bullied or has been a bully ought to read. Any parent concerned about what happened at Columbine should read this captivating novel; it should be on the reading lists of all teachers, counselors, and other public school administrators. Violence at schools happens, Holly finds, largely because it’s allowed to happen, especially if it’s done by popular kids or sports stars. The kids being picked on often feel that they have only limited ways of dealing with the violence, and they can be transformed into powder kegs waiting on the one spark that will make them explode.

This is the first book I’ve read written by Michael Harmon, though he’s also written the acclaimed novels The Last Exit to Normal and Skate. He does an excellent job writing from the viewpoint of young adults and creates memorable, realistic characters. There is a message, or several, really, in Brutal, but above that, the novel is just pure reading pleasure. It has some swear words in it that some people may find offensive, but within the context of the story, it isn’t excessive. Harmon is a fantastic writer, and I look forward to reading more novels by him, especially if they’re anywhere near as good as this one.
Young adult book reviews for ages 12 and up - middle school and high school students

click here to browse children's board book reviews
click here to browse children's picture book reviews
click here to browse young readers book reviews
click here to browse young readers book reviews
click here to browse young adult book reviews
click here to browse parenting book reviews
web reviews
  Douglas R. Cobb/2009 for curled up with a good kid's book  

For grown-up fiction, nonfiction and speculative fiction book reviews,
visit our sister site Curled Up With a Good Book (