The Bitter Side of Sweet, by Tara Sullivan

Friday, August 31, 2018

Fifteen-year-old Amadou and his young brother Seydou spend every day picking cacao pods on a plantation in the African Nation of Ivory Coast. Two years before, Amadou left his impoverished village in search of work, hoping to make enough money to help his family survive the dry season. Younger brother Seydou insisted on tagging along, wanting to be just like his big brother. Thinking they were being hired for day jobs working close to home, the boys were tricked into forced labor. Now, Amadou and Seydou must pick enough cacao pods daily to avoid the brutal beatings of the bosses in an attempt to pay back the money they "owe" to the plantation owner so they can return home. Problem is, the bosses won't tell Amadou how much that is, and in the two years he's lived on the plantation, he's never seen any of the boys actually repay their debt.

Near starvation, beaten down by the constant abuse and hard physical labor, Amadou is beginning to give up hope of ever escaping the plantation. That is, until Khadija shows up. The only girl Amadou has ever seen brought to the camp, she is a spitfire, constantly fighting against the bosses and trying to escape. Despite the rules he's made for himself over time designed to keep him and Seydou safe from the worst of the abuse, Amadou finds himself being inspired by her spirit, and when Seydou is injured cutting cacao pods, Amadou realizes that if he doesn't act soon, there's a good chance neither of them will survive.

This story is one of struggle and survival that takes the reader into the world of forced labor and human trafficking in a very intimate way. Amadou fights to retain his humanity, while at the same time trying to harden himself against the suffering of others. He sees it as the only way to survive his captivity; make no friends, stick your neck out for no one, keep your head down and do as you're told. Without Seydou, I think he would have lost himself completely, but having to protect his younger brother, physically and emotionally, forces him to persevere against the despair and hopelessness that could easily come from living in slavery.

The Bitter Side of Sweet is not Sullivan's first foray into human rights abuses in Africa. Her book, Golden Boy, describes the trafficking of albino children in modern-day Tanzania, who are considered by practitioners of traditional medicine to have special curative powers-but only in pieces. Sullivan brings a well-researched perspective to issues of human trafficking of children in that part of the world. Each of her books ends with an afterword that gives the real-life context for the stories she tells and highlights the ways in which global consumption and the effects of poverty drive modern-day human slavery. Sullivan's writing doesn't shy away from the brutality inflicted on victims of trafficking, but it also doesn't glorify it in any way. Her books are a good avenue for exposing young people to an important social justice issue, one that affects them whether they realize it or not due to the increasing globalization of our economies., and the way consumer behavior affects the people who produce the things we consume.

My Year of King, #11: Different Seasons

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

I'm not a huge fan of short stories, as a general rule. I like reading short stories in the context of English classes, or one at a time in magazines, but something about a whole book of short stories just doesn't really do it for me. Unless the author of said collection is Stephen King (or Neil Gaiman, but this isn't a post about him, so...)

Different Seasons is King's second short story collection, and it is clearly his best. Containing four
short (well, that term is relative in this case) stories themed around the seasons, it demonstrates King's mastery of the form. It proves that when pressed, King can, in fact, create amazing fictional worlds with well-developed characters and intricate plots without 1000 pages to work with. Whether you've read Different Seasons or not, you definitely know at least two of the stories in a different form. This is the collection that includes "Rita Heyworth and the Shawshank Redemption", which was shortened to just The Shawshank Redemption when they turned it into an amazing movie starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins. It also includes the story "The Body", which was turned into the very popular movie Stand By Me, starring a young Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, and the gone-too-soon River Phoenix. "Apt Pupil", another story in the collection, is about a teenage boy who uncovers a Nazi war criminal hiding in plain sight in his suburban neighborhood and blackmails him into detailing all of the atrocities he perpetrated. The final story, "The Breathing Method", takes place in a gentleman's club (the old-fashioned kind, not the adult entertainment kind), where an elderly doctor tells a chilling tale of a woman giving birth under gruesome circumstances.

Every story in this collection is a masterpiece of the genre. Emotionally gripping, well-paced, by turns terrifying and heart-warming, together these stories represent the very best of Stephen King. As always, his characters ring true. This is not the first instance of King using children as sympathetic heroes, but "The Body" is the first time he explores the bonds of childhood friendship that he revisits so masterfully in It. Like many of his most terrifying stories, none of the monsters are supernatural, but real people doing terrible things. The only truly supernatural occurrence in the whole book is in "The Breathing Method". Truthfully, King doesn't need the supernatural stuff to create his spectres; his insight into the evil that human beings can do to each other in their greed or lust or fear is enough.

King has several more story collections in his catalog, and I remember some of them being quite good, but none of them rise to the level of Different Seasons. It almost seems a shame that he hit his high point in this genre so early in his career, but I don't care when this collection falls in the timeline of his works; it is a gift to the world that it exists.

The Beginning of Everything, Robyn Schneider

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Experiencing tragedy is an inevitable fact of being alive. Relationships fail, loved ones die, jobs are lost, and lives are irrevocably altered every moment of every day. Often, the tragedy itself feels like an ending; whether slow and creeping or abrupt and violent, the tragic event becomes the demarcation between "before" and "after".

The "before" and "after" for Ezra Faulkner, the protagonist in Robyn Schneider's YA novel The Beginning of Everything, is separated by the car accident that crushed his leg and ended any hopes he had for a tennis scholarship or someday joining the pro tennis circuit. At the same time he lost his dream of tennis stardom, he also lost his girlfriend and most of his popularity. Ezra, who has always defined himself by what he was able to do, suddenly doesn't know who he is if he can't do those things anymore. Who is he supposed to be now that he isn't the star athlete and likely prospect for homecoming king?

But the tragedy that Ezra thinks is such an ending is really a new beginning. Into his life comes new girl Cassidy, someone who never knew Ezra as the golden boy tennis star. She represents a blank slate for Ezra, someone he can try out his new personality and way of being with. Between his relationship with Cassidy, and the support of new friends on the debate team, Ezra is able to come to terms with the his own personal tragedy and find a new self-confidence that can help him keep moving forward into his new life. But Cassidy has experienced tragedy, too, and her tragedy threatens everything about their relationship

I really liked the characters in this book. Smart, witty, with just enough quirk to make them interesting but not so much to make them weird, Ezra and his friends are the cool intellectual kids I'd want to hang out with. Schneider does fall back on some pretty played out stereotypes about jocks and popular kids when describing Ezra's pre-accident friends, but the story only really works if Ezra's old group of partying popular kids are as selfish and inconsiderate as those types of students are often portrayed. While this yet another coming-of-age/teen romance story, there are twists to the story that add a layer of complexity that makes the story more thought-provoking. For a debut novel, Schneider gets the balance of exposition and action right, and she manages to create a character in Ezra who is self-pitying without being annoying. And the ending did not disappoint-at least, I wasn't disappointed. Let's just say it was not the pat ending that readers of YA love stories may have come to expect.

Usher's Passing, Robert McCammon

Thursday, August 02, 2018

I'm one of those readers who feel like I've got a book inside of me. But I'm also one of those readers who doesn't ever try to turn those book ideas into actual, you know, books, because I am intimidated by the certainty of not measuring up to the writing of the authors I love. Sometimes, though, I am reminded that like all human endeavors, the skill of writing evolves and develops over time through practice. It's unrealistic to expect that a person's first attempts at anything will be a masterpiece. Take, for instance, the novel Usher's Passing by one of my favorite authors, Robert McCammon.

Robert McCammon is the rare author that can write effectively and engagingly in a variety of genres. He's written horror, dystopian, and historical mysteries. He reminds me very much of one of my favorite author's, Stephen King, to the point that his novel Swan Song and King's novel The Stand have so many similarities I wondered for a brief moment if McCammon was another pseudonym for King, much like Richard Bachman was. But, like all prolific authors, including my beloved King, he's got a few clunkers (I mean, how did the genius behind The Shining also produce Tommyknockers?). Usher's Passing is not quite a lemon, but neither is it lemonade.

The premise of the book is that the Usher family, made famous by Edgar Alan Poe's story The Fall of the House of Usher, did not in fact die out after the violent passing of Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline. McCammon imagines another brother, one not present as the fateful events that took his siblings' lives unfolded, who continued the family line in their small ancestral North Carolina village. The family fortune, built on the violent death of thousands at the hands of Usher-produced firearms, has led to extravagant wealth but no real happiness for any of the Usher descendants. As the story begins, Rix, one of three children of the latest generation of Ushers, is called home to attend the illness of his father. Rix, a successful horror writer whose life and career have been derailed by the suicide of his wife, wants no part of his family or the blood money they earn through their military contracts. When Rix returns to their estate in the mountains, he is once again drawn into the family intrigue he tried to escape by fleeing to New York. He, like his father, is afflicted by the Usher curse, a mysterious illness that only seems to affect Usher men. The longer he spends at the Usher Estate, the more he feels himself drawn to some dark power present in The Lodge, a hundred-room mansion that was once the home of the Usher's, but was abandoned before Rix's birth. Similarly, a young boy from the tribe of mountain-folk who live outside and above of the Usher estate feels drawn to The Lodge. But unlike Rix, who seems to be responding to some dark stain on his soul, the boy Newell feels drawn to the house to control or defeat the evil that lies within.

To be honest, the plot is so convoluted that it is hard to write a decent summary of it. This novel has all of the elements of a successful horror novel; spooky setting, cursed house, supernatural powers, etc...And there were parts of the novel that were pretty successful. The dysfunctional family dynamics were well written, as were the descriptions of the estate, Lodge, and mountain community. But somehow, despite having all the right ingredients, this novel never quite met its potential. It was too long, for a start. I'm not afraid of doorstop books, but if a book is going to be 400+ pages, I want them all to be integral to the story. I felt like the beginning of the novel took too long to get going. There were also a few places where I felt like McCammon took the easy way out of plot holes, falling back on cliche horror tropes. I finally went back and looked at the publication date, and sure enough, this book was published in the mid-1980s, towards the beginning of McCammon's career. Clearly, while he'd already had commercial success with a handful of over novels before he published Usher's Passing, he was still developing his writing skills. That actually made me enjoy the book a little bit more. I was able to see the flaws as the growing pains of a writer who would eventually go on to write some of my favorite books, most notably Swan Song (1987) and Boy's Life (1991).

All of which means that maybe I don't have to write a masterpiece right out of the gate, when I finally find the time to start writing down the stories in my head. After all, even the greats had to start somewhere.

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.