Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Developing Minds: An American Ghost Story

LaPoma, J. (2015). Developing Minds: An American Ghost Story. Laughing Fire Press.

Adult - New Adult / Contemporary Fiction

I gave this book 3.5 out of 5 Stars

In Developing Minds: An American Ghost Story, author Jonathan LaPoma takes readers into the life of twenty-four-year- old Luke Entelechy as he takes his first full time teaching job at an F-rated school in Miami.  The job is full of challenges, none of which are made easier by Luke’s personal issues and motivations -- he takes the job mostly for the paycheck while he pursues his real goal of being a writer.  As the school year progresses, Luke struggles to find a balance between the emotional, sometimes physical demands of his job and appropriate outlets for decompressing when the school day ends.  And at the end of the day, Luke and his students are all aiming for the same thing: to survive.

The trouble with Developing Minds is that it can’t decide what kind of book it wants to be: a young twenty-something coming-of-age story or a new teacher survival story? The book never fully develops into either and the two storylines don’t harmoniously weave togetherAs a coming-of-age story, readers need to be prepared for explicit and degrading sex scenes, copious amounts of drugs and alcohol use, and carelessness with little to no remorse. Though there is a cast of memorable characters in this part of Luke’s life, they are unlikable and even despicable in their actions. Luke sometimes shows growth and seems on the cusp of maturity, but he fails time and time again to turn the corner, acting selfishly more often than responsibly.  Admirably, despite his off-hours activities, he makes it to school every morning. However, readers must wonder what strides could have been made if only he and his co-workers had given one hundred percent to their students instead of the leftover, hungover shells that showed up to teach? 

As a new teacher survival story, Developing Minds is much more interesting, and the book is slow-moving until Luke starts the job.  With the backdrop of about the toughest environment a teacher could be given, LaPoma’s world-building is outstanding. The school and all its occupants are in survival mode, and with chaos, disrespect, and violence the norm, the natural consequence is that administrators, teachers, and students must choose their battles -- or check-out completely.  LaPoma nails the emotional turmoil most teachers experience – especially in situations where they are not in control.  The helplessness and despair of Luke and other teachers in the school is palpable, and it is in Luke’s progression of overcoming those feelings that Luke shows real growth. Unfortunately, just as he begins to understand his students, empathize with their situations, connect with them, and ultimately teach them, he abandons them.    

Jonathan LaPoma writes very well, though some additional editing is needed to correct numerous comma splices, a few pronoun errors, and some page numbering issues. There were full side-stories that should have been edited out (namely in his relationships) as they didn’t add anything or move the story forward in any way.  Though the book is pitched as dark humor or satire, I rarely found it humorous. Rather, it was disturbing, depressing, and ventured too often into the truly distasteful. Overall, Developing Minds: An American Ghost Story has some excellence, but those parts are mostly overshadowed and buried in the raunchiness.

This book was reviewed for Reader Views and is re-posted here by their permission. A print copy was provided to me in exchange for my honest review -- the only kind I give. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jonathan LaPoma is an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, songwriter, and poet from Buffalo, NY. In 2005, he received a BA in history and a secondary education credential from the State University of New York at Geneseo. A few months after graduating, he and a friend took a seven-week cross-country road trip from Buffalo to the Pacific. Within a year of his return, he bought a one-way ticket to Mexico, where he lived in a small Pacific coast town for five months and traveled throughout the country in an attempt to find answers to questions that haunt many young adults trying to find their place in the world. These experiences have become the inspiration for much of his writing, which often explores themes of alienation and misery as human constructions that can be overcome through self-understanding and the acceptance of suffering.

LaPoma has written two novels, five feature-length screenplays, and hundreds of songs and poems. His screenplays have won over sixty awards/honors at various international screenwriting competitions, including first-place victories in the 2014 Hollywood Screenplay Contest (Grand Jury Prize), the 2015 Las Vegas Screenplay Contest (two wins: Grand Jury Prize and Grand Prize in the Drama category), the 2014 London Film Awards (Grand Prize: Feature Screenplay category), the 2014 Awareness Film Festival, and the 2014 West Field Screenwriting Awards (The New York Award). He lives in San Diego, CA, and teaches at a public secondary school. 

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