100 Sideways Miles, Andrew Smith

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

What do you get when you cross a quirky protagonist with a horny best friend, a horse falling out of the sky, and aliens flying on angel wings? You get the very different, very charming, slightly weird 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith.

Finn Easton measures time in miles instead of minutes. The earth rotates at a speed of about 1000 miles per hour, so Finn counts increments of time, based on how far the earth has traveled in that time. He figures the horse that fell from an overpass and killed his mother traveled 100 sideways miles before it struck. That accident has come to define his own life. Himself injured in the crash, he developed epilepsy, and has a very distinctive scar on his back from the many surgeries needed to repair it. Finn's father, a famous author, wrote a well-known sci-fi book that has also come to define his life. It features a boy named Finn, with a distinctive scar on his back, that is fighting a horde of aliens that fly to earth on angel wings. His father swears the boy is not him, but Finn feels trapped by the expectations people have that he will be just like the Finn in the story.

Luckily, Finn has a best friend, Cade. Cade is a wildcard, prone to doing outrageous things both in and out of school. Finn also meets and falls in love with the new girl, Julia. Julia, who is living with her grandmother while she recovers from a sexual assault, eventually must return home to Chicago. Finn, lonely and restless, takes off on a road trip to Oklahoma with Cade, ostensibly for a college visit, but mostly just to get away from his life. While on the road trip, Cade and Finn become unexpected heroes, and that experience leads the journey to go in a whole new direction.

As strange as the premise sounds, this book is essentially a buddy comedy with a romance thrown in. While it's a buddy comedy, is it a buddy comedy with heart! Think Wedding Crashers, only with depth. Cade is in turns hilarious and horrifying, but all of that actually helps Finn stay grounded somehow. Finn has trouble seeing himself as a real boy-he feels very confined by the character his father created that isn't him, yet is him. Especially since other people have expectations about how he will be based on the book. Cade helps get him out of his head. Finn also feels inferior to the fictional Finn, who is a heroic protagonist, fighting evil aliens. Finn doesn't feel his own agency-he seems to experience life as something that happens to him, rather than as something he creates. Add to this general feeling of being an imposter the certainty of Finn's blankout seizures, and you can understand why Finn doesn't feel in control of his own life. As journeys tend to do, the road trip with Cade provides Finn the opportunity to learn about himself, grow as a person, and come to terms with some of the negative emotions that are holding him back.

While Cade's friendship provides roots for Finn, his relationship with Julia teaches him what it means to have wings. He falls for her almost immediately, and his gentle way and quirky personality is non-threatening enough for her to feel safe with him, despite her past experiences with boyfriends. I understood how lost Finn felt after Julia went back to Chicago. I remember how it feels to be left behind when someone moves on in a different direction, literally or figuratively. The love story, even though it has some darkness present in it, is still the most charming part of the story.

While the story itself is pretty outrageous and unrealistic, the themes are universal; the discovery of self, first love, friendship. Smith handles all of them with a tenderness that is not necessarily the first thing you notice when you read, but as the novel develops you see how deeply the characters feel for each other, and the way in which they support each other, even when they know the other person is making a bad decision. We should all be so lucky, which is something that Finn realizes in the end. Surrounded by people who care about you, life can be what you make it.

Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, Gabrielle Zevin

Monday, March 19, 2018

So you know how on soap operas, anytime they want to shake things up they do something like bring someone back from the dead or give someone amnesia? And how that always feels contrived and unbelievable and lazy? Yeah, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac is the OPPOSITE of that.

Naomi was your average high school student-editor of the school paper, tennis star, popular girl. She was an average high school student, that is, until she fell down the stairs and gave herself amnesia. She remembers nothing about her life for the past four years. She doesn't remember why her best friend calls her "Chief". She doesn't remember her father's fiance or her mother's new family-in fact she doesn't remember them getting divorced. She doesn't remember her boyfriend Ace, and she certainly can't remember why she fell in love with him in the first place. The first thing she remembers since the accident is the face of a boy named James, who pretended to be her boyfriend to get into the hospital to see her. Naomi struggles to regain her old life, but the more she learns about it, the more she wonders if she wants it all back. Will she still be the same person when and if her memory does return?

Zevin manages to make the whole amnesia thing feel new and fresh, despite the many, many, MANY times it's been used in literature, TV, and movies. The new Naomi is such a different person in some ways than the pre-amnesia Naomi that I found myself wondering if I would like her as much if Zevin had started the story with her old self instead of her new one. While there is a romance component, the parts I found more compelling was the relationship between Naomi and her best friend Will. In regards to the age-old question of whether men and women can ever just be friends, I'm much more a Sally than a Harry (When Harry Met Sally? You know? Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal? Of course, Sally ends up getting together with her best friend in the end, which sort of negates my point. OK, then I'm a 'beginning of the movie" Sally). I always appreciate when an author or film-maker presents straight characters of different genders who are just friends. Of course, despite that, this story is a love story, albeit one that is told through a very inventive plot.

Hidden Wives, Claire Avery

Monday, March 12, 2018

Mormonism as a religion has always interested me. Not in an "I want to be Mormon!" kind of way, but in a "how did Joseph Smith get people to follow him?!?" kind of way. I read John Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, which did a lot to help me understand the history and theology of Mormonism (and is an excellent book, if you too are interested in learning about religions). Along with that, I've read both fiction and non-fiction about the phenomenon of plural wives; the practice of men taking more than one wife. While the practice is officially banned in mainstream Mormonism, there have been stories in the last decade or so of offshoot cults of Mormonism who still engage in the practice. Aside from the obvious sexism present in the idea of plural marriage, many of those cults are also marrying girls as young as 10 or 11 to much older men, and driving their boys away from the community when they begin to be a threat to the older men's ability to attach themselves to new wives. This has resulted in some high profile raids and arrests.
fascinating history

Claire Avery explores one such cult in her novel Hidden Wives. Rachel and Sara are sisters, living in a fundamentalist Mormon community. Both are in their mid-teens, which actually makes them old maids by the communities standards. Sara has been promised to her uncle, and will be his fifth wife. Distraught, she begins to questions everything about their faith and way of life.  Beautiful Rachel, on the other hand, has caught the attention of the most powerful men in the community. She will be given the "honor" of marrying one of these men, all of whom are older than Rachel's own parents.

Sara begins to think she must find a way to escape, but she is not willing to leave her sister to her fate. Rachel, for her part, continues to cling to the tenants of their faith, stubbornly refusing to admit to herself or anyone else that maybe what they've been taught is not the literal truth about God's plan. But when she develops feelings for Luke, a young newcomer to their group who was forced to come by his parents, she decides that her love for him is stronger than her feelings of duty and guilt about the cult. Finally, Sara knows they have their chance to run.

While Avery does not specifically name the cult as a perverted form of Mormonism (it's called the Blood of the Lamb in the book), the community is clearly based on the Mormon offshoots that have been in the news in the last decade or so. Sara's character is the one I related to the most. She's smart and feisty, torn between her love for her family and her growing concerns about the faith community in which she was raised. Rachel's character was hard for me to like. She was almost cartoonishly naive about the world, and for most of the book appeared to have very little ability to think for herself about much of anything. I understand that was the point; she was so brainwashed by the religious instruction she'd been given that she couldn't imagine or admit that it might be wrong. But her dogged adherence to the tenants of the cult became tiresome after a while. Luke, as a boy dragged along to the community by her newly-converted parents, became the bridge between the girls and their new world, and the love between him and Rachel was pretty sweet.

One of the things I appreciated about the book was the fact that after the girls ran away, everything wasn't suddenly all better for them. Avery showed how difficult it would be for young people, sheltered from modern society, to survive in the real world. The girls knew almost nothing about the world outside the community. Had Luke not come from there, they would never have been able to make their escape. They would have been forced to go back or ended up exploited on the street. The parts of the story where they were figuring out how to survive were some of the best, and it was at that point that I started to like Rachel as a character. While there were aspects of the story that were not totally realistic, there was enough there to keep me engaged, and as quick, easy reads go, it did its job.

In a Dark Dark Wood, Ruth Ware

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last few years, you're probably familiar with The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins or S.J. Watson's Before I Go to Sleep, either in book or movie form. Both novels play with unreliable narrators who know they are unreliable, one a falling-down drunk, the other an amnesiac with short-term memory loss. For different reasons, each has holes in their memory that cause them to question not just the motives and actions of others, but their own as well. Ruth Ware's novel, In a Dark Dark Wood, is another example of this type of story, where no one, not even the person telling the story, knows exactly what is going on.

The main character of Ware's novel is Nora (who in her younger days was known as Lee). A crime writer, Nora works from home, and rarely has much interaction with the outside world, other than the occasional drinks with her friend Nina. She is surprised when she is invited to the bachelorette party of a former friend, Clare Cavendish, who she hasn't seen or spoken to in years. Nina convinces her to go, and the two set off for a weekend in the woods. The weekend quickly turns strange, and 48 hours after she arrived, Nora wakes up in the hospital with no memory of what has happened and the knowledge that someone ended up dead. Nora becomes a suspect, and because of her head injury, she can't be sure she wasn't the one. But slowly, as Nora remembers, it becomes clear that she is only a pawn in someone else's murderous plot.

Ware does a great job with mood and tone. The house where the party happens is all glass and chrome, becoming one large fishbowl when the woods are dark and the lights are on. The description reminded me of the house from the movie (American, not Swedish) for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Ware's descriptions of the English countryside are equally eerie, oppressive and dark. The setting provides the foundation for the creep factor, but what is really disturbing is the behavior of the people at the party; Clare's perfect charm, Flo's obsessive worship of Clare, Tom's dry gay humor, and Melanie's homesickness for her children. As a reader, you never feel completely comfortable. The tension that is created mimics perfectly the anxiety and fear that Nora ends up feeling.

The plot is possibly a little too convoluted, though it is impressive that Ware was able to create this intricate story with every little detail coming together to explain the events. There were no extraneous events that ended up being unrelated, no last-minute deus ex machina to solve the mystery. Everything fit together neatly at the end like pieces of a puzzle. All in all, I'd say if you enjoyed The Girl on the Train or Before I go to Sleep, or if you are a fan of atmospheric mysteries, you will like this book.

The Burn Journals, Brent Runyon

Saturday, March 10, 2018

This year, my district has experienced three student suicides; two middle schoolers and a high schooler. As the number of teens experiencing mental health issues continues to rise, we in the school community are left to support our students the best way we can, while dealing with our own trauma, often without adequate numbers of counselors or social workers to help us all cope. This increase in rates of teen depression and anxiety has me searching for answers, answers to the questions that plague me on some of my sleepless nights; how can I make a positive difference in the life of my youth group members and my students so they never feel the utter despair that leads to suicide?

One way I try to find the answer is to read. Of course, that's my go-to for most things; no matter the question or need I always think, "There's a book for that". But I hope that by finding compelling stories of teenagers who attempted suicide but ultimately overcame their despair, I can point students towards the authors who will make them know they are not alone and that recovery is possible. One such book is The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon. When Brent was 14, he poured gasoline all over himself and lit himself on fire. The formerly excellent student had started to slip into some poor life choices, including setting a locker on fire. Sure he was going to be caught, he decided the only thing left to do was to die. With third degree burns over 85% of his body, he spent the next year in the hospital recovering from his injuries. While there, he was forced to confront the feelings that caused him to attempt suicide in the first place, and to try to fathom why he chose THAT method. The book details his long journey to wellness, both physical and mental.

Like many teen suicide attempts, this one is impulsive. Faced with disappointing his parents, Brent can only see one way out. Throughout his recovery, he goes back again and again to that one instant. Between the support of his brother, the love of his parents, and the amazing nurses who care for him, he begins to realize how much he has to live for. He decided to start writing The Burn Journals on the 10th anniversary of his suicide attempt. Over the year he had not shared much of his story with others, choosing instead to focus on his future, but with the anniversary he felt as though it was time to share his story, in the hopes of helping others see that there is always another way. Runyon's writing is straightforward, and he doesn't try to soften or minimize anything. I think that this book would be good to use in a classroom when discussing mental health, decision making, or perseverance. It could also be part of a unit on memoirs; the structure of the story and the amount of detail make it a good example of the genre.

Dumplin', Julie Murphy

Thursday, March 08, 2018

When I look back at pictures of my teenage self, I wish that I could somehow send her a message
telling her she's not as fat as she thinks she is. I've always been a curvy girl, and as I moved into adulthood and parenthood I went from curvy to firmly plus-size, but when I was in high school, the way I looked didn't match the way I felt. American society has done such a disservice to women and girls. We are constantly bombarded with images of ultra-thin, perfectly made-up women, presented as the ideal. In reality, even the women in those images don't look the way we see them on billboards, music videos, and the pages of fashion magazines.

If only the teenage me had been able to meet Willowdeen Dixon, the main character of Julie Murphy's Dumplin'. Willowdeen lives in a small Texas town, with an aging beauty queen for a mother and a high school full of people who just don't get her. This last fact never really bothered her before, because she had her best friend Ellen, who had never seemed to mind that Will was different than the other girls. She's also dealing with the death of her beloved aunt, who was the only person in Will's life who seemed to see her for who she was. Willowdeen is full of contempt for the pageant culture that interests most of the other girls in town; of course, when you're overweight and have unconventional looks, contempt is a safer feeling than envy. Will's worldview is shaken, though, when she meets Bo, a handsome, brooding private school boy, who actually seems to be interested in her romantically, an experience that is unheard of in her life so far. She might have been able to deal with the feelings this arouses in her if she could have had Ellen to talk to, but Ellen has done something unexpected; she's signed up for the Miss Clover City beauty pageant. Suddenly, it's like Will doesn't even know her anymore. Struggling to deal with her mother's constant harping, Bo's unexpected interest, and Ellen's betrayal, Will decides to do something no one expects. She's going to join the pageant herself.

Murphy has created a character in Willowdeen that reminded me so much of my younger self. She's smart and funny, but also deeply insecure. That insecurity is something that I suspect almost all female-identified people in our society feel. I like to think it's getting better, as body positivity and more diversity in representation change the national conversation on what is beautiful, but for women of my generation and older, I bet there's not a day that goes by that we don't listen, just for a moment, to that voice in our head that says we should be skinnier, or have bigger breasts, or perfectly toned abs. If we're lucky, we can tell that voice to shut up, but I can't think of one day of my life since puberty when I haven't had negative thoughts about some aspect of my body and appearance. Ultimately, Will gets some self-acceptance through her relationship with Bo and her participation in the pageant, but that struggle is one that resonated strongly with me.

Some of the most emotional parts of the novel are the sections where Will is remembering her aunt. Lucy. Lucy was her rock, the adult in her life who accepted her exactly as she was. They shared a love of Dolly Parton, and of good southern cooking. Lucy was, in fact morbidly obese, unable to leave the house. Will's mother, who ran the Miss Clover City pageant, lived in constant fear that Will's connection to Lucy was going to take her down the same path to obesity and early death, which explained the nagging about what Will ate and how much (or little) she exercised. Will's relationship with her mother continues to be rocky when she signs up for the pageant. Her mother, rightly so, thinks that Will and the other unusual contestants that join with her are mocking something that is very important to her, and while I think pageant culture is creepy and weird, I do understand where her mother would be hurt by her actions. It is this family dynamic that makes this more than just a novel about a fat girl who finds love. Though the fact of Lucy's death, explained as a result of her weight, sort-of undermines the point that size doesn't matter. In the end, though, that is a small criticism. The book is full of humor and heart, and would be a great read for teen girls and female-identified folks.

The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

I posted recently about the Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin, a series I read (well, OK, listened to) like it was my job. Jemisin created a fantasy world like I had never seen before, with elements of science and magic that were completely new in my experience as a fantasy reader. She's done it again with The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms, the first book in the Inheritance series.

Yeine Darr is the leader of the small, barbarian nation of Darr when she is called to the capital of the Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms, Sky. She is the daughter of Kinneth, an Arameri nobel, daughter to the current head of the clan. Kineeth was disowned by her father when she married a non-Arameri and escaped with him to his tiny nation of Darr. Teine's grandfather, Dekarta, head of the Arameri clan and king of the realm in all but name, has selected her as one of his heirs. However, this is not an occasion for celebration. Dekarta has no intention of Yeine ever actually taking the seat of power. Her job is to be the family sacrifice to the god Bright Itempas, naming another as heir in the moment of her death.

Into this already complicated situation come the Enefada, consisting of the god Nahadoth, brother to Itempas, and his children. They have been enslaved by Itempas to serve the Arameri as punishment for losing the Gods' War millennia ago. The Enefada have spent centuries trying to free themselves from their captivity, and they see Yeine as just the ally they need. Yeine, for her part, wants vengeance on Dekarta and the Arameri for her mother's death, and so agrees to align herself with the Enefada to take down her clan. Let the scheming and conniving begin!

Much like in the Broken Earth series, Jemisin's worldbuilding is unique and unlike anything else I've read. Despite how much action there is, almost all of the story takes place inside the palace of Sky. The story is taut with tension, and unlike the Broken Earth series, it is also full of sensuality and some pretty explicit sexy-time. It is very definitely a fantasy novel for adults. It deals with themes of love and betrayal and revenge and destiny...there are so many facets of the story that it was sometimes hard to keep them all straight. Once again Jemisin makes good use of first-person narration, telling the story from Yeine's perspective, allowing the reader to feel the full weight of the many emotional aspects of the story. By the time the story concludes, I felt like I'd been put through the wringer, but in the best possible way.

The story continues in The Broken Kingdom, which I am about a third of the way through now. It picks up the story some years later and introduces a whole cast of new characters that bring a new point-of-view to what you already think you know. I'm excited to see where Jemisin takes the story next-with her, you never know, even when you think you do!