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Nineteen Minutes - Jodi Picoult Nineteen minutes is the amount of time it takes Peter Houghton to kill ten people and wound 19 more on one March morning at Sterling High School. Nineteen Minutes is also the title of Jodi Picoult's latest novel, the story of a high-school shooting spree similar to Columbine and others, but with one major difference - the shooter is found just in time to be prevented from turning his gun on himself, so the aftermath of this event includes a trial.

I think I've read every one of Jodi Picoult's books, and in some ways she's like the Law and Order of novelists; most of her plots have that "ripped-from-the headlines" urgency, and she's very topical. Her stories generally have a pattern - open with the major crisis, then flashback to the events that led up to it (rather like the "72 hours earlier" bit that became familiar to Alias fans), and then pick up again with the consequences of the crisis, which will nearly always include a trial. She researches her topics well, and narrates through multiple characters, sometimes with several first-person narrators (but not here). For my money, this is her best book since Perfect Match.

The scenario is probably one of the most common nightmares of modern parents (my son was a high-school freshman in a very similar school and community at the time of Columbine, so don't think it wasn't mine), and Picoult not only sees it from the viewpoint of a victim's mother - Judge Alex Cormier, who will also be the one to hear the case in court - but also that of the shooter's parents. Alex's daughter Josie and Peter, the shooter himself, are also major characters, and Picoult has a really good handle on the cliques and personas of high-school life...good enough to make most readers glad to have it behind them, and worry about their kids heading into it. Other major characters are making repeat appearances from other Picoult novels (since she tends to place her stories in small New England towns, characters do recur at times) - detective Patrick Ducharne from Perfect Match and defense attorney Jordan McAfee from The Pact and Salem Falls. The plot unfolds well, and the characters are distinct and memorable. There's plenty of suspense, and I didn't see the twist at the end (she always has one) very far in advance, which is satisfying to me (and one of the things I didn't like so much about her last novel, The Tenth Circle.)

Picoult has done some experimenting in her last few novels - ghost stories and graphic novels - but I think she's back in her element with this one. The subject matter might be too unsettling or controversial for some readers, but I think that might be exactly why someone should read it. There are uncomfortable truths here about the cruelty of kids to each other, the social strata of high school, and how teenagers can become strangers to their parents without the parents even seeing it - and this might help open some eyes, lest we forget what a challenging job parenting can be even under the best of circumstances.