— Young Adult Education

Murder And Mayhem! ‘The Basic Eight' by Daniel Handler

Recently I’ve been featuring a lot of brand new books here in Young Adult Education. While I love telling you guys about the new books I love, this column isn’t just about new releases. Sometimes, I like to shine a light on older books that might not get as much attention, which brings us to today’s pick: Daniel Handler’s The Basic Eight. The Basic Eight just might win the honor of being the weirdest book I’ve written about here. It’s not technically YA, but I am a rule-breaker with no respect for genre distinctions, so I’m declaring it a YA book. That being said, it contains a lot more violence, sex, and language than most YA books, so be warned! The Basic Eight is not for the faint of heart, or for those of you who come here to read about kissing books (don’t worry, next week we’ll be back to kissing books…I can’t help who I am).

The Basic Eight is the diary of Flannery Culp, a high school student who is incarcerated because she murdered one of her classmates. Clearly, this book is a little dark. Through her annotated journal entries, she attempts to explain what happened, where things went wrong (hint: it might have had something to do with all the absinthe), and why she did what she did.

The title of the book refers to Flannery’s group of friends. They throw dinner parties, drink out of flasks, and are fast-talking, wisecracking, well-dressed mini-adults. They’re impossibly witty and sophisticated, sort of like the characters in Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics or the film Brick. It’s not that the world of The Basic Eight is necessarily unrealistic (there’s a character named Winnie Moprah, and you can just guess which real-life host she’s supposed to be), but it’s definitely a heightened, dramatized, satiric version of reality.

Things get crazier and crazier as Flannery’s diary continues, and I had a hard time putting the book down. Daniel Handler’s writing is extraordinarily funny and smart–there are lots of literary references that will make all you English majors out there feel smug. There’s also a twist near the end that you may see coming, but since I’m the sort of reader who willfully suspends all disbelief and just goes along for the ride, it was a shock to me. In fact, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what to believe.

A warning:The Basic Eight isn’t for everyone. If you don’t like (very) dark humor, you should probably skip this one. And if some pretty graphic violence is a turn-off, then you might want to read something else. But if you’re a fan of Heathers, or if you’ve ever wished The Secret History was a lot funnier and set in high school, then you’ll probably love The Basic Eight.

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