The Body Finder, Kimberley Derting

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

To quote the wisdom of Ben Parker, "With great power comes great responsibility". In The Body Finder, Violet Ambrose discovers the truth of this statement when she is drawn into the search for kidnapped girls in her small Washington town.

Violet has known since she was a little girl that she could sense things that other people could not. For as long as she can remember, she has been drawn to the bodies of small animals killed by predators, compelled to give them a peaceful burial in her backyard. At the tender age of eight, she was drawn to the biggest, most gruesome discovery of her short life-the body of murdered girl. Despite Violet's inexplicable discovery of the body, the killer is never captured.

Nine years later, Violet's town and the surrounding area are once again rocked by the disappearance of young girls. While at an end-of-summer party, Violet is drawn to the body of one of the disappeared girls, floating in the marshy reeds at the edge of a lake. Older now, Violet realizes that not only can she feel the bodies of the violently deceased, she can sense the same energy coming from their killers. Violet, with her best-friend-maybe-boyfriend Jay, hatch a plan to search for the serial murderer terrorizing their small town. But the responsibility she feels to the dead may come with deadly consequences for herself.

Derting has managed a pretty astounding feat with this novel. She has written a sweet teenage love story and a gruesome murder mystery all in one. And amazingly, neither one feels shorted. While the theme of friend-turned-love-interest is a common one, Derting does an admirable job making this particular love story charming and believable. While there is no real explanation or exploration of how and why Violet got her unique ability, the internal logic of what it is and how it works hang together pretty well. Derting creates enough suspense that I found myself unable to put the book down the closer I got to the end, and there was at least one gasp-worthy moment as the story came to a head. While this book reminded me in some ways of Barry Lyga's I Hunt Killers, it is much less graphic, and the violence when it comes is more implied that explicit.

This book is the first in a series about Violet and her strange power, so if you are looking for a new YA series for yourself, or if you are looking to hook a teenage reader with a love of supernatural crime shows (goodness knows the CW is full of them), then I suggest checking this out. We are using it next school year as a choice book for literature circles with our senior English classes, and I sincerely hope the students who choose it enjoy it as much as I did.

Still Life With Tornado, A.S. King

Monday, July 09, 2018

What would you say if you could go back in time and talk to your past self? Would you tell yourself Still Life With Tornado uses this idea of traveling back to your past selves explore how our past, present, and future are bound up together through the memories and dreams each of us holds.
to avoid the things you regret? Would you want to relive previous stages of your life? How would that change the person you became? A.S. King's novel

Sarah, once a gifted artist, can't even summon the skill to draw something as simple as her own hand. After a falling out with the art club kids she thought were her friends, Sarah stops going to school, instead wandering around the town where she lives, searching for anything that is truly original. One day on her ramblings she meets her 23-year-old self riding a bus. This 23-year-old version of Sarah is angry, though she won't tell 16 year-old Sarah why. Soon after, she runs into her 10-year-old-self, sunburned from a family trip to Mexico that present-Sarah barely remembers, but which was apparently a turning point in the life of her family. Finally, 40-year-old Sarah shows up, firm but kind, demanding present-Sarah remember what happened in Mexico, so she can face the trauma and start to heal. The more time Sarah spends with her past and future selves, the more she is drawn into both her memories of the Mexico vacation, and the truth about her parents' toxic relationship.

There are a lot of moving pieces with this narrative. There are chapters from Sarah's perspective, flashbacks to the Mexico vacation, and short sections narrated by Sarah's mother, revealing the details of her relationship with Sarah's father and how their family got to the low point they are currently in. Despite the jumping around, the story hold together nicely, with well-paced revelations about Sarah's life and family. The past and future Sarahs are not hallucinations; present-Sarah doesn't have dissociative identity disorder, nor do we discover at the end it was all a dream. Sarah's mother and brother eventually see all of the other Sarahs too. While King offers no explanation for where they came from or how they got there, it's clear that the existential crisis present-Sarah is having has caused them to appear. King perfectly captures Sarah in all of her stages; 10-year-old Sarah's personality has clear connections to present-Sarah, and present-Sarah is reflected in the personalities of the older Sarahs. I was impressed by King's ability to create the same character at four very different stages of life that really did feel like they could be the same person, all while having them interact with each other.

Ultimately, this novel explores the impact of domestic violence on families, specifically on children. Sarah's father's rage and violence create a brittle home environment, one in which both parents are present, but clearly not in true relationship with each other. Like many children growing up in violent households, Sarah perceives the long, hostile silences and frequent arguments as normal. Her home life can't be that bad, right? Eventually, through the gentle (and not so gentle) coaxing and cajoling of the other Sarahs, present-Sarah is able to confront the sad and scary truths behind her parents' apparent hatred of each other, and her brother's seemingly inexplicable absence from their lives.

As in her other books, King creates a detailed and well-developed internal life for Sarah. Eventually, the reader learns what the incident was that caused Sarah to stop going to school. That incident became the catalyst for the personal crisis that led Sarah to confront the realities of her home situation. The incident also explains why Sarah suddenly found herself unable to make art, which up to this point had been her outlet for the stress of living with parents who were constantly in conflict. As usual, King has given us a well-crafted, beautifully told story that shows her deep understanding of how teenagers think and feel. I think Reality Boy might still be my favorite of hers, but this one is a close second.

The Square Root of Summer, Harriet Reuter Hapgood

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Summer break should be a time of lazy mornings, afternoons spent outdoors, and long twilights where anything feels possible. For Gottie, the main character of The Square Root of Summer, summer break has become something to dread. After her beloved grandfather's death the year before, Gottie descended into a grief so deep she has yet to discover the bottom. As if that weren't enough, her brother's return from school has also brought the return of his friend Jason, Gottie's first love and first heartbreak. It also brings the return of her childhood best friend Thomas, who emigrated to Canada years ago, and never once in the years he's been away wrote or called.

With so much going on in Gottie's world, when she starts losing time she wonders if she might not be going mad. Each time it happens, she has a vivid flashback to a memory from the summer before. Soon she realizes they are more than just flashbacks-she is actually there, in the past, able to manipulate things and talk to people. Gottie, a scientific genius, develops a theory; she believes she is traveling through wormholes in space-time. In other words, time-travel. But why? What is causing this time displacement? And why does she keep going back to revisit memories she's been trying to avoid?

This book takes a novel approach to both the idea of time travel, and to the exploration of loss and grief. It's not often that I've seen quantum physics used as a major plot device in YA literature. But in the context of the story, it works. Which of us, when faced with painful memories, doesn't shy away? Gottie spends and entire year trying to avoid anything that reminds her of either her first heartbreak or her father's death. This means pushing away everyone-family, best friend, teachers at school. But Hapgood's message-that we must confront painful memories if we hope to learn from them or move past them-is perfectly delivered through the events Gottie relives as she is sucked back in time.

The characters are quirky and charming. Though Gottie's mother died when she was born, her father  a German ex-pat, chose to stay in England to raise his children. He was benignly neglectful of Gottie and her brother Ned even when their grandfather was alive, but he withdrew from the world even more after he died. Throughout the long winter, Gottie longed for him to be more present, but he was dealing with his grief in his own way. Ned, Gottie's brother, is a first year uni student who wants to be a rock star. His exuberance and love for life covers his own grief, which he hides from Gottie, feeling he has to take care of her. And even though Gray, Gottie's grandfather, is not physically present, he looms large over Gottie's entire journey that summer, as she finally faces her most painful memories of him. He was larger than life, the kind and eccentric patriarch of their little family. He was the opposite of Gottie's introspective father, and as such he became the central figure in Gottie's childhood. His loss destabilized her whole world-the whole universe, apparently, if the fabric of space-time was rent as a result.

The love story here is pretty predictable, which didn't make it less enjoyable to read. The depth of Gottie's relationship to Thomas, and the struggles they have to go through to repair their friendship before they can be together at all add a tension that improves on the basic plot device of "best-friend-becomes-boyfriend".  Gottie also has to repair her friendship with her bestie Sof, whom she pushed away after Gray's death, not wanting to drag her into her well of grief. What she failed to realize was that Sof was grieving as well, and they could have supported each other, and Gottie not turned inward so drastically. There are some good themes about the meaning of friendship, and about how healthy relationships require commitment and work to keep them going. There was also a good anti-example in Gottie's relationship with Jason, her "first love". Gottie comes to realize that what they had was never what she thought it was.

This is Hapgood's debut novel, and for a first novel it is very good. I'd definitely recommend it for inclusion in a classroom library, or as a book club read for high schoolers. I don't know that it has universal appeal, but I can see many teens connecting with one or the other characters, and with the themes of friendship, loss, and love.

My Year of King, #10-The Running Man

Thursday, July 05, 2018

I suspect The Running Man is probably the best known of the Bachman books, thanks to the 1987 movie starring the future governor of California. Like The Long Walk, it takes place in a near future where the main form of entertainment is watching people compete in life-or-death competitions for fame and fortune. In the dystopian society of The Running Man, the wealthy and powerful see the poor as vermin who selfishly expect things like jobs and safety and health care (how rude!). To keep them in line, a powerful media company, specializing in reality game shows, gives some of the poor the opportunity to make money by competing in competitions where they must risk embarrassment, injury, or death for the entertainment of the masses. The protagonist, Ben Richards, signs up for the biggest competition of them all, The Running Man, in an effort to save his infant daughter who is gravely ill. As a contestant on this sadistic show, Richards must try to evade the Hunters for as long as possible, all while people on the street are tracking his movements and reporting them back to the Hunters for cash rewards. For every hour he stays alive, he earns what would be a month's salary at most jobs. For every police officer or Hunter he kills, he receives a bonus. If he can last 30 days, he will win a $1 billion prize. No one has ever lasted more than eight days, but Richards hopes he can survive long enough to get his daughter the care she needs.

As books go, this one is pretty dark. There is really nothing to lighten the bleakness of Richards's situation-every time he begins to feel a little bit of hope, he is betrayed, injured, etc...Sadly, considering the book was written over 30 years ago, there are an awful lot of parallels between the casual cruelty of King's future America and the one we are living in right now. So much rhetoric has gone into convincing people that the poor are leeches, lazy welfare queens who just expect hand-outs, that there is little stomach in the country for addressing the systemic causes of poverty. King also describes reality TV before it was really a thing, predicting the rise of shows such as Survivor, Big Brother, and The Amazing Race. Is it so difficult to imagine a more desperate future where the stakes for contestants on these shows rise to the level of life and death? The Running Man also explores the idea that the media will rise to be the greatest power in society, and how it can be manipulated by the wealthy and powerful to their own ends. Considering the number of people who never look up from their smartphones (and I'm not judging-sometimes I'm one of those people), we've already reaches saturation in terms of media consumption. And we've already seen how that media can be manipulated to produce a desired result. Of course, propaganda has been around for a long time, but never before has it had such an easy time reaching the masses, nor has it been as ubiquitous as it is now. We've seen the effects of that biased media manipulation in many ways, not least during the last election cycle, and right up to the present. There are large swaths of people who believe that the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is a true patriot, looking out for the little guy, "draining the swamp" and fighting the "deep state", despite the OVERWHELMING evidence to the contrary. All this because our news sources have become so politically polarized, and because the rise of the internet allows any yahoo with a cause to have a world-wide platform.

Yeah, this was actually a really bad book to read right now. As someone who is already having trouble dealing with the many terrible things this administration is doing, I didn't really need to read something that is so dark and feels so utterly, frighteningly possible. Darn you, Uncle Stevie, for being so prescient. I'd rather your flights of imagination didn't land so close to home.

The Sky is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Jandy Nelson's book I'll Give You the Sun was one of my favorite books last year. Nelson has a profound ability to name and describe complex emotions, especially those experienced during the turbulence of adolescence. Her characters feel raw and vulnerable, her writing artful and often poetic.

The Sky is Everywhere is not the masterpiece that I'll Give You the Sun is, but it still demonstrates Nelson's ability to create characters who are fully realized and intensely human. Our protagonist, Lennie, is stunned and gutted by the sudden death of her sister Bailey, struggling to keep living with the gaping hole her sister's death has caused. Withdrawing from most of the people closest to her, she finds comfort in spending time with her sister's boyfriend Toby. When they are together, she feels Bailey's presence in a way that she finds compelling and addictive. But then a new boy, Joe, comes to town. Joe is full of exuberance and joy, expressed most keenly through his musical genius. She is caught between her feelings for these two boys, one tying her to a past where her sister still lives, the other calling her to move into a future full of hope and possibility. Does she dare to dream her own dreams, live her own life, knowing her sister never can?

This is a more straightforward narrative than I'll Give You the Sun, but it covers some of the same ground. Both deal with grief and loss, the characters responding to tragedy and loneliness different ways. Both explore what it means to fall in love for the first time while grappling with the feelings of anger, sadness, and loneliness that tragedy can bring. Lennie knows that her compulsion to be with Toby is a way to hold onto a past that can never be regained, but finds it almost impossible to consider what it would mean to move past her loss and continue living. Joe, this boy who never even knew Bailey, represents the future she could create for herself, if she didn't feel as though having a future at all is an act of betrayal to her sister's memory. Nelson's prose is beautifully written, full of imagery and with a lyrical flow that helps to create the emotional impact the story carries. The Sky is Everywhere is a jewel of a book, one that proves that Nelson is no one-hit-wonder. May her career be long, and may her books continue to explore the deep emotional life of youth.

The Final Empire (Mistborn Book 1), Brandon Sanderson

Monday, June 11, 2018

Frequent readers of this blog probably know that I am a fantasy nerd from way back. Beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, continuing through Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series, The Elfstones of Shannara, The Thomas Covenant series, and Anne McCaffery's Dragonriders series, I have spent a good part of my life escaping into fantastical worlds where magic is real and heroes save the world from evil monsters.

The Final Empire, the first book of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series, is epic high fantasy at its finest. The world Sanderson creates is one of order and stability. But that order and stability comes at a great price-most of the world's population, called skaa, is used as forced labor on large plantations, under the absolute and absolutely cruel power of a noble class. The Lord Ruler controls the Final Empire. He is treated like a god, revered and hated, seemingly immortal. His dictates are enforced by a brutal group of priests called Obligators, all of whom are allomancers-people who have the power to use ingested metals for magical purposes. He also controls the dreaded Steel Ministry, creatures with spikes for eyes that can command the power of allomancy in ways more powerful than any regular human.

One man has vowed revenge against the Lord Ruler for his many atrocities. Born a skaa, Kelsier is a skilled Mistborn-an allomancer who can use all of the metals, rather than just one as most allomancers can. He develops a plan for overthrowing the Lord Ruler, and thinks he has discovered a way to kill him, using a previously unknown 11th metal. While planning this rebellion, he discovers Vin, a full Mistborn girl who was raised in the streets as part of a thieving crew. Vin is timid and suspicious of everyone, a result of years of abuse by her brother and various crew leaders. Kelsier undertakes to train her, and brings her into his own crew. Kelsier's plan seems insane-to create a skaa army and take over the capital city of Luthadel. But just maybe his plan is crazy enough to work.

The plot is well-crafted, intricate even, and despite the many characters and the almost constant machinations that are happening throughout the story, the whole things holds together beautifully. While Kelsier is the main actor, Vin is the heart of the story. Waifish, paranoid, and skittish, she survived the streets through her own wit and inner strength, calling on allomancy even before she knew what it was. Her transformation from distrusting, angry girl to full, beloved member of Kelsier's crew gives the story an emotional impact it would otherwise have lacked. The action is well-paced, with detailed descriptions of fight scenes that really give the reader a sense of what allomancy would be capable of.

The world-building is exceptionally well-done as well. Despite being what I would consider high fantasy, there are none of the standard high fantasy characters here-no wizards or trolls or elves. Instead, Sanderson created a world unlike any I've read before, with allomancy as the main driver. It includes magical creatures such as the kandra, as well as a race called terrismen, allow Sanderson to write in twists and turns that would be impossible, or at least unlikely, with only human characters.

I'm on to book two, which is so far just as good as the first. I look forward to seeing where the story goes.

My Year of King, #9: Night Shift

Saturday, June 09, 2018

I have a confession to make-I don't like reading short stories. At least, not entire books of short
stories. If you're going to write an entire book, why not just write a novel? I tend to get bored before I'm even half-way through a book of short stories, no matter how skillful the writing or interesting the subject matter, and over the years I've stopped buying them altogether. (Don't worry, English teacher friends, I actually do like short stories, just not in bulk.)

I have two exceptions to the no-books-of-short-stories rule-Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. I'm not sure whether it's the genre, subject matter, or just my general hero-worship of both of them, but I have no problem getting through their books of stories. And the first book of short stories I ever read was back in the mid 1980s, Stephen King's Night Shift. I remember when it showed up in the house; I must have been 11 or 12. My mother brought home the paperback edition, probably from Crown Books (remember Crown Books?), and I asked her to keep it hidden because the cover I hadn't yet read any of King's books-I was not quite old enough yet-but I knew they must be terrifying, because how creepy is that cover. Of course, a couple of years later I read Carrie for the first time, and I've been hooked on King ever since, but my little brother was able to use that cover to creep me out for years afterward.

As a Constant Reader, I've always known that King puts Easter eggs in his novels to reward his fans. What I didn't realize, having read his books mostly in order since the mid- to late-80s, is that sometimes he also foreshadows his later books in short story form. In Night Shift, one of the characters in "Gray Matter" describes a huge spider-like monster in the sewers, which anyone who's read IT will recognize as one of Pennywise's forms. While not specific to any one novel, there are plenty of King staples in these stories-lots of humans behaving monstrously, and monsters behaving like humans. He also provides a prequel of sorts to his novel 'Salem's Lot in the story "Jersalem's Lot", in which some 19th century gentlemen exchange letters about a strange town and a house with something in the walls. This first story collection includes King classics such as "Children of the Corn", which became a not-very-good-movie that ruined the name Malachi forever (and in my experience as a public school teacher, naming your child Malachi guarantees they will act like the devil), and "Trucks", which later became the movie "Maximum Overdrive".

The story that goes along with the creepy picture on the cover, "I Am the Doorway", is actually one of the least scary in the collection, about a man who is infested with alien parasites that are slowly taking over his body and mind, forcing him to do unspeakable things. But that image has NEVER left me. To this day when someone mentions this book, I get a shiver thinking about that darn illustration. King follows up Night Shift with several other short story collections, and I am curious to see whether any of those stories also gave hints to novels that came later.