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My Year of King, #15: Pet Sematary

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Considering the many, many scary things Stephen King has written about, you wouldn't think a story
about an old Indian burial ground that causes things buried there to come back to life would be his most disturbing book. But boy, howdy! Pennywise the Clown and the Man in Black have NOTHING on poor little Gage Creed turning into a bloodthirsty killer toddler.

OK, that last sentence almost makes it sound like a joke, but Pet Sematary is probably King's most disturbing book. When the Creeds moved to rural Maine, they chose a house on a logging road. Most of the time, the road was quiet. But when the trucks come through, they are flying at speeds that are dangerous to anyone who has the bad luck to be in the road. Louis Creed and his family discover this the hard way when their daughter's beloved cat is killed. Louis's friend and long-time area resident Jud takes Louis and the dead cat to the Pet Sematary, where local children have been burying their pets for decades. But Jud doesn't stop in the main cemetery-he continues past it to an old Indian burial ground where things that are buried don't stay dead. Sure enough, the cat comes back, but it is definitely NOT the same as it was when it went into the ground. Louis vows never to use the burial ground again-until his three-year-old son Gage is hit by a truck. But if the cat came back different, what will the burial ground do to a person?

This book is so dark that King didn't even want it published. It was inspired by his family's experiences living in Orono, Maine for a year while King taught a class at the University of Maine, during which his daughter's cat was killed, and his son had a close call with a truck on the road. His wife and his good friend Peter Straub, with whom he wrote The Talisman and Black House, agreed with him that it was too dark for publication, but up against a deadline to complete his contract with Doubleday he turned it in, and it became one of his most popular books. I'm not sure what that says about us as readers-it is so bleak, and there is really no happy ending or moment of redemption.

I guess I must be one of those readers who like it bleak, because I loved this book when I first read it in high school, and I enjoyed it again rereading it now. I remember how much I loved Jud's character and the sweet relationship he has with his wife. He is definitely the moral foundation of the book, and yet he is the one who sets up the situation that leads to so much grief and horror.  I remember the movie version of this book not being great, though there is that scene where Gage takes the scalpel to Jud's Achilles that is just chilling. This story definitely demonstrates its tagline: Sometimes dead is better.

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

I have always considered myself non-racist, and over time came to consider myself anti-racist. But it is one thing to call yourself anti-racist, and another thing to actually live an anti-racist life. As a white person born and raised in America, it has only been with time and conscious effort that I have begun unlearning my own implicit bias. Looking back on my early, clumsy attempts to be anti-racist, I am amazed at my own lack of understanding and naivete. I went through all the stages "good" white folks go through-being colorblind, thinking that knowing black pop culture somehow made me culturally competent, feeling defensive when the white supremacist history of the US was pointed out to me. I've had to unlearn the messages I internalized about things like "personal responsibility" and what it means when someone describes something as "ghetto". I've had to process the ways in which I have unthinkingly caused harm, and change the way I speak about things like "proper" English and "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps". But, as the wise and wonderful Maya Angelou said, "When you know better, do better".

If you are someone who follows me on social media, you know that over the last year or so I have posted a LOT of articles and videos about white supremacy and white fragility. While it is systemic racism that functions to uphold white supremacy in America, individual attitudes towards race and the way we as white folks participate in those systems will determine whether they will continue to function as a way to continue a racial caste system that has existed in the United States in one form or another since the first white colonizers traveled here from Europe. The research will tell you that most white folks see themselves as non-racist, and believe that the choices they make about where to live, who to hire, who their friends are, and what types of activities their children participate in are race-neutral. Despite this, all of us who are called white are acting at least in part in response to the unconscious biases ingrained in our psyche through years of social conditioning. The only way to effectively dismantle white supremacy as a system is to recognize and unlearn those biases.

Michelle Alexander provides a strong case for how the racial caste system in America has morphed from literal enslavement and Jim Crow to the current era of mass incarceration. She traces the history of the racial caste system in America, and describes in great detail how the War on Drugs and the criminalization of black people, especially black men, has created a justice system that is anything but just. Unlike the period of chattel slavery and the era of Jim Crow, Alexander argues that the current weaponization of the criminal justice system against poor black and brown people is permitted and supported by the very policies and legislation that were meant to end the oppression of people of color in American society. Because the laws and policies LOOK race-neutral, they are perceived as being race-neutral, even though they are applied in racist ways that uphold the system of white supremacy that has been a feature of American institutions since before the Revolutionary War. Lacking overtly racist motives, the courts have routinely said that the unequal rates of incarceration for black and brown people cannot be challenged on the basis of racial discrimination, despite the fact that even a cursory study of the effects of things like three-strikes laws, racial profiling, and probation and parole practices disproportionally affect black and brown people, keeping them under the control of the state, and allowing for legal discrimination in voting, housing, and employment.

Alexander's book is a stunning condemnation of the prison-industrial complex, and a rebuke to those people who think that we are somehow living in a post-racial America. She also takes to task those in the black community who continue to emphasize respectability politics in the search for racial justice, pointing out that even within the black community there are those who have internalized the idea that the overwhelming numbers of black and brown people currently incarcerated are a result of personal choices on the part of those who are imprisoned, rather than on a system that is specifically designed towards exactly this outcome.

When people ask me why I focus so much on calling out the toxic effects of whiteness, I often say, "You can't change what you can't name." White folks who really care about being not just non-racist, but actively anti-racist, MUST educate themselves about the ways white supremacy is baked into the very fabric of American society. Once you see how systems of oppression work, it is impossible to stop seeing. I suspect this is what keeps some well-meaning white folks from doing the work; they are operating under the "ignorance is bliss" principle. But willful ignorance will not protect us from the corrosive effects of systemic racism on our society. White supremacy is a sickness in the soul of white culture, and until it is rooted out and excised like the cancer it is, it will continue to harm not just black and brown people, but white people as well.

Book Scavenger, Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

Friday, December 14, 2018

Twelve-year-old Emily's family does not exactly lead a conventional home life. Her parents, blessed (or cursed) with wanderlust, are trying to live in each of the 50 states. For Emily and her brother, this
means every few months they are dragged to a new city, a new neighborhood, and a new school. Emily doesn't really mind too much, though she's learned the hard way it's easier to leave a place if you don't put down any roots there-which for a 12-year-old means friends. Emily finds her books to be better company anyway.

One thing her parents' quest to live in all 50 states is good for is the game Book Scavenger. Created by Emily's idol Garrison Griswold, the game entails hiding books in public locations and then posting clues to their whereabouts online. Other players read the clues, puzzle out the locations, and retrieve the book. Every book you find earns you points towards the ultimate goal of becoming a Book Scavenger master. And now, just when Griswold is getting ready to release a new puzzle game, Emily's parents are moving them to the center of the Book Scavenger universe, Griswold's hometown of San Fransisco.

Emily's excitement is dampened, however, when Griswold is attacked. When she and her new friend James find Griswold's book of clues, they know they have to keep it a secret if they want to win the game. But they aren't the only ones looking for it. Emily and James have to race against time to discover the secret and save Mr. Griswold before it's too late.

Basically, I was Emily as a kid, and if the internet had existed and this game had been real I would have been ALL OVER IT. For sure I would have needed to get the most points. I'm not competitive about most things, but reading challenges or games of intellect, those get my competitive juices flowing. Plus, I love the idea of releasing books out into the world for other readers to find. When I read a book I love, it makes me happy to share it with other people.

The story is a good blend of tween friendship drama and exciting quest story. Emily and James are perfectly suited to each other as friends, and Emily's growing angst about her family's unusual way of life is both completely understandable and well-handled. Bertman has created a little gem of a series, one that avid readers will relate to, and fans of action and excitement will also enjoy. I look forward to checking out the other books in the series.

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, by Isabel Quintaro

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Body image. Two short words that carry so much weight (pun intended). For American women andbecause men like some curves, especially in the baby-feeding area of the body, but certainly not FAT! Being fat means you're lazy. Being fat means you have no self-control. Being fat means you don't care about yourself. Being fat means people can dismiss you without guilt, because being fat is a seen as a character flaw, not a natural subset of human appearance.
girls (and, increasingly, girls anywhere in the world influenced by American beauty standards), the phrases "body image" and "weight problem" go hand in hand. There are certainly other (unrealistic) expectations for things like flawless skin, silky hair, etc..., but even those things won't make a female person "ideal" without also being thin. Not too thin, of course,

Being a curvy girl myself (Godbout hips, am I right aunts and girl cousins?), I have spent almost all of my life, from as far back as I can remember, ashamed of the size of my body. Especially when I was a teenager, which is ridiculous because looking back I was a perfectly average-sized person. But then, teenage girlhood is fraught with messages about the ways we don't measure up to feminine ideals-we're too skinny/too fat/too smart/too air-headed/too prudish/too slutty/etc...Isabel Quintero explores this through the lens of Latinx culture in her novel Gabi, A Girl in Pieces. 

The book follows the protagonist, Gabi, through her senior year in high school. Told through her journal entries, the story takes us through her struggles to maintain her grades, complete college applications, and manage a social life. Gabi's body image is pretty low, so when a cute boy named Eric wants to date her, she begins a relationship with him, despite the fact that they have nothing in common. Luckily, she soon finds Martin, a boy from her English class who shares her love of poetry.

Gabi is also trying to juggle all the stress of senior year with her concern for her father, who has been addicted to meth as long as Gabi can remember. When she comes home one day to find him dead of an overdose, it throws her into a tailspin that threatens to derail her plans to escape her dead-end neighborhood and find the life she has always dreamed of.

Quintaro expertly navigates the space between hope and fear with Gabi, who alternates between being sure her life is over and recommitting herself to the future she wants to have. Gabi's poetry demonstrates how she processes her life experiences, eventually finding her own voice. The novel takes on a lot-body image, first love, teen pregnancy, sexual assault, drug addiction/overdose-but it does a decent enough job addressing them all that the story doesn't feel disjointed. Quintero mixes the darker events with lots of Gabi's own self-deprecating inner life, creating a nice emotional balance. I think a lot of teenage girls would relate to Gabi, especially Latinx girls. This was definitely one of the best YA books I've read this year.

My Year of King, #14-Cycle of the Werewolf

Sunday, December 02, 2018

I know I read this when it was first released, but I remembered NOTHING about it. Turns out, that's because it didn't really leave an impression on me, then or now. But considering the strange journey this story took to make it into novel form, that's not really surprising.

Cycle of the Werewolf details a year in the life of Tarker's Mill, a small town in (where else?) Maine. In January, at the full moon, a man is mauled to death by what appears to be a giant animal of some kind. It happens again in February, March, etc...By July, the entire town is terrified. So terrified, they cancel the 4th of July fireworks. Marty Coslaw, a ten-year-old, wheelchair-bound boy, sneaks out to light off some firecrackers his uncle left, and is almost killed by what turns out to be a werewolf. Eventually, Marty discovers the true identity of the killer, and begins sending him anonymous letters, begging him to take his own life to spare the town. In the end, Marty sets himself up as bait in a final showdown.

The book actually began as short vignettes written to accompany a calendar being illustrated by comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson. Not surprisingly, King found the brief nature of the vignette too constricting, and decided to expand the story into a short novel. That initial structure, though, gives the narrative a choppy feeling, since the flow of the plot takes 30 day jumps from chapter to chapter.

By now you'll recognize that a couple of King's traditional motifs are present even in this short, contrived novel. The hero is a child-a boy child, specifically-which comes to be a feature of almost all of King's best loved novels. He also continues to explore the idea of normal, everyday people becoming monsters, though in this book he does it more literally than in others. Because of the nature of the narrative and the brevity of the text, most of King's signature character development is not present in this book, which may be part of why it didn't impact me enough for me to even remember what it was about.

It was turned into the movie "Silver Bullet" in 1985, because by then almost any new King book was likely to be turned into a movie. The film, starring a very young Corey Haim, as well as Gary Busey and Terry O'Quinn, opened to mixed reviews, and became something of a cult classic. I remember seeing it on VHS at some point in the late 80s or early 90s, but even that didn't help burn the story into my brain. I suppose it's an enjoyable enough read in the moment, but it's really a popcorn book; it lacks substance, but is oddly satisfying; it fills you up in the moment, but before long you're hungry again.

Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Monday, November 26, 2018

I love me some fantasy novels, but I am willing to admit that for the most part, the stories I've been drawn to in the past have very definitely been from the same basic British-high-fantasy mold. Lots of elves and knights and magicians and fairies.

What I only recently came to realize was just how much adventure and wonder I was missing by not searching out diverse fantasy! Other than Melinda Lo and her excellent books Ash and Huntress, I hadn't encountered much in the way of diverse voices in fantasy (I don't count Octavia Butler, since she's sci-fi, and unlike most bookstores, I choose to recognize those genres separately). I tried a Nnedi Okorafor novel, Who Fears Death, but I'm not gonna lie, I couldn't get into it (please don't send hate mail; I was sort of in a reading slump at the time). At any rate, when I saw Children of Blood and Bone on a bunch of YA reading lists, I was excited to give it a go.

Zelie will never forget the day that magic disappeared from Orisha. It's the same day that the king, jealous of the powers of the magical race the maji, ordered the slaughter of all adult maji in the country. Since then, she and her remaining family have been eking out a living in a small fishing village. Zelie, like her mother, is a diviner. If magic still existed in Orisha, she would one day gain the magical powers that would make her a maji. However, since magic disappeared, the diviners have been under constant threat from the king and his guards, and Zelie and her family live in constant fear that the guards will finish the genocide that was started on the night Zelie's mother was killed.

Amari is the king's daughter, and from an early age has been taught that the diviners are evil and dangerous. Along with her brother, Inan, she has been forced by her fathe

Property of the Rebel Librarian,

Saturday, November 03, 2018

It should come as no surprise to any of my readers that I'm an OG book nerd. I don't ever remember NOT being able to read, and many of my childhood memories revolve around laying on my bed reading. In elementary school, I was quiet and bookish, and I tried not to be noticed. Most of the students in my blue-collar, working class school didn't get me, and as we see all too often, people are not usually that nice to people they don't understand. I was often teased for being a teacher's pet, a judgement that was in no small part reinforced by the fact that I found it impossible to disobey my teachers. In some of my classes, this meant I was often called upon to be the "class monitor", and to report students who were not following directions or who broke the rules. You can see how this would endear me to my classmates. Whenever I could, I would escape into books.

My bookish ways were a weakness in the eyes of my classmates, one they could exploit for their own entertainment, except for one time each year: the annual classroom reading competition. Our librarian had classes or student teams compete against each other for the number of pages read in a month, and for that glorious 30 days I went from being the object of ridicule to the class hero. I read not just a little bit more than most of my classmates; I read more by a factor of ten. This wasn't that hard to do, considering how many of my students never read anything at all, but it was a pretty good bet that whatever class or team I competed with for our reading contests would win. For one month, I suddenly became visible to the classmates who ignored me the rest of the year, and even the actively mean and nasty of my classmates backed off some, instead growling what I assume they thought were words of encouragement in my direction, hoping to ride my literary coattails to fame, glory, and class popsicles.

Eventually, elementary school ended, and I moved on to middle and high school, as we all do. I left behind my torturous recesses hiding on the playground, and met other kids who loved books, kids I could feel safe being myself in front of. I left behind being invisible, as well, and allowed my natural extroversion to show itself, leading me to be the loudly opinionated lover of discussion and debate that I am today. But no matter what else I have done in my life, or how I have grown and changed over time, nothing has changed the love-no, the reverence- I have for books and the written word.

And because in my heart I am still that little girl lying on her bed buried deep in a good book, Property of the Rebel Librarian may be my favorite new middle-grade book. The protagonist, June Harper, is your average book-loving seventh grader. She happily goes about her life, reading whatever she finds in the school library that interests her, until the day her parents discover a novel in her room they consider "inappropriate". Thus begins a sad spiral into a reading desert for June. The beloved middle-school librarian is suspended for providing developmentally inappropriate reading material to students, most of the books disappear from the school library, and June's own personal collection is rounded up and sanitized by her parents. June falls into despair, until a Little Free Library she passes on her way to school gives her an idea-she will round up copies of the banned books and turn her locker into a secret Little Free Library. Suddenly, students who have never shown an interest in reading can't wait to get their hands on a forbidden book. As reading fever grows, June comes up with a plan that just might save the library-and her own intellectual freedom.

I identified with both June and the librarian while reading this, though I admit I would NOT have been brave enough to confront the problem so boldly when I was June's age. I would, however, have been crushed if someone had tried to curtail my reading. Occasionally I picked up books I wasn't quite ready for (my parents' copy of The Joy of Sex comes to mind), but put them down again because I wasn't able to relate to their content at all. Thankfully, my parents believed in the freedom to read, and they supported my habit with frequent trips to the library and the bookstore. Allison Varnes clearly worships at the altar of books as well, and she and I apparently have similar taste in books. Many of the books that Varnes weaves into the novel as examples of "inappropriate" titles are books that I read and loved as a young person myself.

Nowadays, of course, I relate more to the librarian. In my current position, I am asked to justify a book that we teach in our high school curriculum at least a couple of times a year. Usually the complaint has something to do with profanity, or with controversial content. And we do read some novels that deal with pretty heavy subject matter: death and grieving, sexual assault, abuse, and suicide being a few. But these books also explore identity, and redemption, and healing; they provide a window into the experiences of others that allows our students exposure to diverse perspectives, and to think deeply about what it means to be a friend, or a child, or a partner; in other words, to explore the full range of what it means to be human.

Property of the Rebel Librarian is a middle-grade novel that empowers young people to stand up for what they think is right, and to respect the free exchange of ideas that contributes to greater understanding of our complex world.

Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson

Sunday, October 21, 2018

"In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.", Angela Davis

I recently listened to a podcast series called Seeing White, which explored how and why whiteness as a concept was a created, and how it continues to function in American society. (I know, I know, if you're someone who is also friends with me on social media you've heard me recommend this podcast multiple times. I don't care; you should listen to it.) One of the things I realized listening to the podcast was that even though I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about racial justice issues, I still have so much to learn about the history of race and the myriad ways white supremacy has been baked into the foundation of American society.

Bryan Stevenson's memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, provides more insight into many of the issues raised in the podcast. Bryan Stevenson is a civil rights lawyer who has spent his career representing people whose rights have been trampled on by a racist criminal justice system. Founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson has argued cases before the US Supreme Court challenging the death penalty, and life imprisonment without parole for juvenile offenders. Just Mercy chronicles his early career; the cases he worked on and the legal issues they represented. Since his days as a young, overworked lawyer, Stevenson has become a sought-after expert on criminal justice reform. He has also, as head of the Equal Justice Initiative, given the country the first museum and memorial dedicated specifically to lynching victims.

Just Mercy does a beautiful job balancing legal theory with the very intense, very personal stories of the clients Stevenson and EJI represented over the years. Stevenson lays out a clear path from the racist policies of the Jim Crow era to the continued racist practices in the age of mass incarceration. He clearly demonstrates the inherent inequities in the jury selection process and the harsh realities of prison on juveniles who are tried as adults. Stevenson intersperses the stories of his clients with his own story, demonstrating a depth of compassion that adds emotional heft to an already powerful story. I don't know how anyone who reads this book could argue with the basic lack of justice in our so-called justice system. Just Mercy is a clarion call for reform, real reform, to a system that was designed to function as a form of social control over people of color and poor people, those who are the most vulnerable in our society.

My Year of King, #13-Christine

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Love at first sight. There's no other way to describe the feeling teenager Arnie Cunningham gets the first time he sees the 1958 red-and-white Plymouth Fury rusting away in the tall grass with a "For Sale" sign in the window. Thus begins the long and terrifying odyssey of a boy and his evil, demonic car known as Christine. The narrator of King's 13th novel Dennis Guilder has a bad feeling about the car from the start, but Arnie quickly becomes unnaturally attached to her. Named Christine by her previous owner, the car begins to exhibit unusual behavior right from the start. Her odometer runs backwards. Her dented bumpers and ripped upholstery begin to repair themselves. Her radio only plays songs from the 1950s. As Christine begins to rise from the rust heap to some semblance of her former glory, Arnie himself begins to change. His teenage acne clears up. He becomes more confident, standing up to his parents for the first time in his life. He starts working for the shady owner of the garage where he "works" on Christine, though he often can't remember making the repairs to her engine or exterior once they appear. He even gets the courage to ask out the new girl, Leigh Cabot, even though you could only describe his previous experience with girls as non-existent. With a new girlfriend, a new car, and new-found strength and maturity, Dennis should have been happy for his friend, but as the year goes on and Arnie becomes more and more obsessed with Christine, Dennis can only be afraid-for Arnie, and for anyone who comes between Christine and her new owner. When the deaths start, Dennis and Leigh try to convince themselves that they are imagining the malevolence they feel whenever they ride in Christine, but eventually they can no longer ignore the evil influence she has on Arnie, who has begun to change in ways that scare them both. But how to destroy the evil that resides in Christine's shiny chrome mirrors and gleaming red-and-white frame?

So far, I've enjoyed most of King's books just as much 30 years later as I did when I first read them, and this one is no exception. It follows some of King's now-familiar themes and motifs; children or teenagers as protagonists, an every day object possessed by something evil, and a weird psychological connection between said object and some poor slob who was just going about his life. This is one of the things that make King's works more than just monster stories. You can't help but have sympathy for Arnie, even as he becomes increasingly hostile and irrational. My only real criticism is that Dennis's character seems a little too good to be true. He's a little too mature, a little too self-assured, and a little too willing to stay friends with someone who was essentially popularity poison. But King does in Christine what King does best; exploring how regular people respond in extraordinary circumstances.

I don't remember loving the movie made from this novel, but then I really haven't liked most of the movies made from King's books, the most recent version of It being the one notable exception. I think that the special effects available at the time just weren't up to the creep-factor that the self-driving, murderous Christine required to be truly terrifying.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens' Agenda, Becky Albertalli

Monday, October 08, 2018

Simon is 16, gay, and in the closet. Afraid of how his friends, classmates, and parents will react when
they find out he likes boys, he lives a double life, pretending to be straight by day, and emailing back and forth with the anonymous and very gay Blue by night. When he accidentally leaves his email open on a school computer, another student, Martin, sees his conversation with Blue. Martin uses this knowledge to blackmail Simon into arranging a date between Martin and Simon's friend Abby Martin's threats and Simon's own increasing difficulty keeping his truth from his friends leads to tension in his usually close knit friend group, and when his relationship with Blue goes from virtual to irl, Simon finds himself struggling to adapt to the changes in his life.

This book is the inspiration for the movie Love Simon that came out last spring, and while I haven't seen the movie yet, if it is half as charming as the book then I know I will love it. Simon is such a likable, relate-able character. He perfectly represents the situation so many of the queer youth I know find themselves in. Society itself has moved so far in terms of LGBTQ+ acceptance it seems like everyone should be able to be out without fear, but the reality is much more complicated. There are still plenty of people out there who think being gay is a sin, and even people who claim to be accepting sometimes have trouble coming to terms with the issue when the person coming out is their own son, daughter, brother, or sister. Simon THINKS he knows that the people closest to him will be accepting, but taking that first step into the light makes a person incredibly vulnerable, and once that news it out there's no taking it back.

But Simon isn't a sympathetic character just because he is making this huge, scary change. It's because he reads like any normal (and by normal I mean weird) teenager. He can be selfish and self-absorbed, he can use people, he makes decisions out of fear of rejection and ridicule, and he makes poor choices about school and drinking and how to talk to his friends. But all of those things just make him more endearing, because he reads like a REAL PERSON. I mean, I can think of at least a half dozen teenagers I've known over the years who are basically Simon by another name. And not just gay teenagers, either. Some of the struggles Simon has are universal, though they make look different depending on your identity. How do I know my friends will stand by me? Who am I in relation to who my parents think I am? How can I tell if a person likes likes me? Anyone who's has been, or is currently, a teenager has gone through some form of Simon's journey.

Finally, and this is my favorite, the book is NOT TRAGIC! My wife and I joke that the gays always have to have some tragic end in every movie or TV show, whether that end is a job, a relationship, or their life. This book shows that life for LGBTQ+ folks doesn't have to be full of suffering and sorrow. Figuring out who you are and how to navigate romantic relationships are just part of growing up, and it's refreshing to read a story that treats that process as the normal part of life that it is, rather than focusing on how hard and sad and dangerous it is when the person is gay. Not that there aren't people who experience danger and sadness and anger in their coming out process, but focusing on that fact ALL THE TIME is just one more form of othering.

By the Time You Read This, Lola Jaye

Saturday, October 06, 2018

This book came to me by way of my Little Free Library. I can't really explain why I decided to bring it in. On the surface, it's not really my thing. Regular readers of my book reviews will know that I am anti anything that reminds me of a Lifetime or Hallmark movie. I don't mind sentimental stories, but when the emotional manipulation is so thick you can cut it with a knife, I just can't. But free books are free books, so it ended up on my to-read shelf.

Lois's father dies of cancer when she is five. On her 12th birthday, her aunt brings her a set of manuals that her father wrote for her in anticipation of his death. She is to open and read one on each birthday until she turns 30, the age her father was when he died. Lois, who has spent essentially her whole life grieving the father she barely remembers, anxiously awaits each birthday, ready to read the words of wisdom that he left for her. Along the way she learns a lot about herself and her relationships-with family, friends, and lovers-and comes to terms with the hole in her life that losing her father caused.

Super Lifetime-movie-like, right? I thought so too, and when I started reading I gave it 50 pages before I would abandon it for something less schmaltzy. And then, around page 75, I realized I was totally hooked. It's certainly not perfect-there are definitely sections where I was annoyed either by Lois herself, who essentially spent the majority of her life ignoring the people she had left in favor of the father she lost, or by some overly-sentimental little moment. But Jaye took what could have been a saccharine story and made it palatable, in large part because the manuals themselves, the only mechanism through which Lois or the reader can know her father, are full of self-deprecating humor, self-doubt, and real talk life lessons. No inspirational platitudes here; Lois's father admits his shortcomings and mistakes, and rather than being the untouchable saint Lois tries to make him, the reader sees a real person, struggling with his own mortality and his grief at leaving his young daughter to grow up without him.

While I certainly wouldn't describe this novel as literary, it is a decent example of what women's fiction, specifically chick lit, can be when done well. Of course, most of my criticisms of chick lit still stand-Lois's life is defined by her relationships with men (her father and others), there's a healthy dose of female competitiveness, and her professional success is shown as being hollow without the "love of a good man". But I got sucked in anyway.


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.

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 freaked.me.out. 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.

Scythe, Neal Shusterman

Friday, June 08, 2018

Neal Shusterman is one of my faves. I heard him speak at a reading conference a few years ago, and I appreciated how much he honors the intelligence of young people in his writing. His novels are full of action and excitement, but they also deal with big, challenging ideas that make the reader think and question. My favorite series of his is the Unwind Dystology, but I've liked almost everything I've ever read of his (sorry, Challenger Deep-I just didn't get you).

It says something about just how many YA books I currently have on my to-read shelf that it's taken me as long as it did to read Scythe, the first book in a new trilogy by Shusterman. The book is set in a future America where an artificial intelligence called the Thunderhead has benevolently taken over control of human society, solving all of the problems that plague mankind-poverty, crime, war, disease, even death-in the process. Because people can now reset themselves to younger ages, even be brought back from the dead (they call it "being deadish"), the population threatens to grow too large for available resources. That is where the Scythes come in. The only thing the Thunderhead does not control in this new world order are the Scythes, trained assassins who are required kill a certain number of people each month in an effort to keep the population under control. Scythes can choose to do this however they see fit, as long as they don't choose their victims based on biases, or spare victims because of personal connections. As you can imagine, Scythes are not exactly a welcome sight at your office picnic or kid's soccer game. Though they are revered for their necessary service to society, no one really wants to BE one. But that is exactly what Citra and Rowan have been selected for-to be apprenticed to a Scythe in hopes of earning the robes that will allow them to choose life or death for the people they meet. But, as they soon discover, there is a growing corruption in the order of the Scythes; there are Scythes who feel they should be freed from restrictions on who and how many people they can kill, Scythes who enjoy taking life so much they make a spectacle of it. Citra and Rowan must figure out how they can protect society from these immoral Scythes, or die trying.

Shusterman does a few unique things here with his worldbuilding. First, there is the whole premise of Scythes. I mean, people try to cheat death all the time, right? But what would the world be like if people really couldn't die? Would they stop getting married, having families, etc..? Probably not. The planet would be overrun in a generation. (This reminds me of Torchwood: Miracle Day, which had a similar storyline, though with a different cause). Also, not only didn't they die, but they can reset themselves back to a younger age to have a better quality of life. This appears to lead to some changes in the way people perceive relationships, both romantic and familial. Would people stay married to the same spouse for eternity, or would they eventually desire something different? How many children can a person have over centuries before they can't even remember all of them? How does the relationship change when suddenly your grandmother looks and feels younger than you do?

Most of the time when authors write stories about all-powerful AIs, they are trying to enslave humanity (think Skynet from the Terminator movies). Shusterman's Thundercloud, however, uses its power to save humanity. Of course, it takes over the functions of government to do so, and controls every aspect of daily life, but benevolently. Maybe Shusterman is setting us up for some big reveal about how the Thunderhead is actually using humans as slave labor for some larger purpose, but I don't think so. I think that Shusterman is presenting a version of the future where the technology we've created really does end up helping us instead of hurting us. That would be great, since technological advances are happening exponentially and there's no stopping them. I'd prefer the future where that's a good thing instead of a world-ending thing. This does beg the question of genre, though. I mean, ordinarily I'd say this is dystopian science fiction, but is it really dystopia if life is better after the computers take over?

The main characters Citra and Rowan are pretty well-developed, though I'm a little over the star-crossed-lovers thing in YA books in general. At least in this case the thing that makes them star-crossed is a little more unique than usual. I'm looking forward to seeing where Shusterman takes the story-a plot line that I assumed would take the whole trilogy to resolve was resolved by the end of the first book (and resolved well, not rushed nor through some deus ex machina shenanigans). Book 2, Thunderhead, arrived yesterday, and despite the many other books that have been on my to-read shelf longer, I may just have to dive right into it.

My Year of King, #8: Roadwork (Richard Bachman)

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Change-the only constant in this crazy universe. Sometimes change can be exhilarating, and sometimes it can be catastrophic, but the big ones rarely come without some sort of strong emotions attached. Such was the case for Bart Dawes, protagonist (?) of King's 1981 novel Roadwork, written under his pseudonym of Richard Bachman.

Bart was a loyal husband, and a loyal employee of the laundry service he'd worked for most of his life. The first blow to Bart's sense of the world comes when the laundry is bought by a large conglomerate, reducing him from a person to a number. Then, the state decides they need to build a new highway-right through Bart's neighborhood. This will displace both he and his wife, as well as the laundry he works for. Bart denies the reality of these changes as long as he can, at least consciously. Unconsciously, he plots revenge against the people he sees as responsible for the changes that are upending his life. He is determined to stop the march of progress in its tracks. Slowly, George unravels mentally and emotionally, fighting an ultimately futile battle against corporate and government might.

If you've seen the movie Falling Down with Michael Douglas, you are already familiar with the mood and tone of Roadwork. Bart Dawes is one in a long line of King characters who do terrible things, but whom you can't help feel sorry for (more on that when I write my review of Cujo). Obviously, Dawes is meant to represent the idealized past, a time when loyalty and hard work meant something, and when people were more important than profits. Of course, as anyone who's studied history knows, that idealized past never really existed; at least, not for long, and never for everyone. But Dawes does represent a certain type of middle class white man; men like my father, actually. My dad literally started in the mail-room of ComEd in 1970, and eventually worked his way up to management. He worked for the company for over 30 years, with a pension plan and Cadillac insurance. Admittedly, that sort of job is basically a unicorn in the 21st century. Now, people go from job to job every few years, dragging their 401K with them if they are lucky. But for white men working in skilled manufacturing and lower level management-type jobs 60 years ago, a certain level of stability, respect, and loyalty from their employers were expected. It was these men who were the most affected by, and critical of, the changes in the employment landscape and the social contract that led to where we are today. Suddenly, the world didn't make sense anymore; the basic assumptions under which you've operated your whole life suddenly turn out to be false.

One of the things King likes to do is explore is what happens when you put ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Some, like Jack Torrance and Bart Dawes, slowly go insane. Some, like Stu Redman and Larry Underwood (The Stand), rise to the occasion. While what happened to Bart Dawes was not nearly the terror-filled insanity of Jack Torrance in The Shining, the loss of his identity and his grasp on reality was the most terrifying thing that had ever happened to Bart. And like the factory-workers, coal miners, and steel-workers of the late 20th century who fought and fought to save their dying industries, Bart too is unable to stop the inevitable march of progress that led to his demise. Unfortunately, because Bart Dawes is such an entitled, white male character, longing for the days when he and people like him were on top of the societal food chain (spoiler alert-they still are), I couldn't really relate to him as a character, especially as his desire to keep things from changing led him to basically sacrifice anything and anyone else (including his wife) to his cause.

All of the Bachman books are pretty dark, and this one is no exception. You don't exactly get a happy ending in any of them. Unlike Rage and The Long Walk, which forecast possible futures (sadly, the school shooting has become all-too frequent since Rage was written), Roadwork looks backward, asking us to consider whether all this "progress" is worth the cost.

My Year of King, #7-Firestarter

Monday, May 14, 2018

Chances are pretty good that when you think about Firestarter, what you see in your mind is a very young Drew Barrymore, hair blown back from her tiny face, setting, well, just about everything in her path on fire. That movie, along with E.T., helped propel her to early stardom and created one of the many iconic images of the 1980s. So iconic, in fact, that the Netflix series "Stranger Things" references it, not literally, but through the character of Eleven and the shadowy government agency with nefarious purposes known as Hawkins National Laboratory. As movies made from Stephen King books go, I don't remember Firestarter being too awful, nor do I remember it straying too far from the events of the book, though I will admit it's probably been 20 years since I've seen it.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the basic plot, Firestarter revolves around Andy and Charlie McGee, a father and daughter who are on the run from a secret government agency called The Shop. When he was in college, Andy and his future wife Vicky participated in trials of an experimental hallucinogenic drug that left them with weak psychic and telekinetic powers. Those powers were magnified by a power of a lot in their young daughter, Charlie, who showed signs from a very early age of being able to move things with her mind, and, more frighteningly, set things on fire. This happened most often when she was angry or upset, giving new meaning to the phrase "terrible twos". Andy and Vicky did everything they could to keep her powers, and their own, a secret, but The Shop maintained covert surveillance on all of their past subjects, and when they saw what Charlie could do, they tried to capture her so they could study her with the ultimate goal of creating a super-weapon. Andy, obviously, wasn't really down with this plan, so he took his daughter and ran.

This is not the first time that King has explored the idea of telekinesis, nor the first time he has used a young person as his powerful hero (hello, Carrie!). Charlie is another in a string of children that King uses as protagonists. One of the recurring themes in his work seems to be that the more innocent you are, the more likely you are to have the imagination and bravery to confront evil. In this case, while Charlie is the one that can set things on fire with her mind, the evil is the government, another recurring theme in King's works, first appearing in The Stand. It is not always the main theme, but in many of King's books the least sympathetic characters have something to do with the power structure of the location of the story, whether they be a politician, clergy member, or wealthy citizen.

One of the things I liked about this story, both when I first read it and now, is the relationship between Charlie and her father. He is smart, a teacher (another recurring element in King stories), kind and gentle, and pretty evolved for a man who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite their dire situation, he tries to teach Charlie the difference between right and wrong, even as he sometimes has to tell her to do horrible things to help them evade The Shop. It felt more unusual when I first read it, but even now portraying the father as the primary caregiver of a small child feels is not that common. Unlike Jack Torrance, Andy McGee is able to be truly selfless, doing everything he can to ensure his daughter's safety despite what it means to his own.

The story does feel a bit unbalanced, with long periods of waiting in between action scenes, but oh what action scenes they are! The other characters in the novel; agents from The Shop, mostly; are written with just enough depth for you to understand their motivation, but without any real substance. They could be any shadowy government official from just about any book or movie that contains shadowy government officials. They are fairly shallow, that is, except for John Rainbird, the Native American Viet Nam vet turned assassin, who is tasked with getting Charlie to use her powers. His character is cunning and violent and sociopathic, but with an impressive, if scary, intellect. His main motivation for being an assassin isn't money or revenge or patriotism-his long string of murders are essentially his own twisted research into what you can see of a person's soul if you look in their eyes as they die. He is a truly chilling character, and one of the more subtly written King villains. He definitely adds a quality of menace to an already suspensful story.

Jumped In, Patrick Flores-Scott

Friday, May 04, 2018

"Don't judge a book by its cover." "Looks can be deceiving." "All the glitters isn't gold." "Beauty is only skin deep." We have quite a few sayings in English about using more than just appearances to make judgments about people. That idea is the foundation of the young adult novel Jumped In by Patrick Flores-Scott. The main character is Sam, a teenage boy who has perfected the art of slackerhood. He has learned how to keep his head down and avoid drawing the attention of teachers or his fellow students, thereby allowing him to drift through high school doing just enough to pass and escape the not-always-friendly scrutiny of his peers. But when he is partnered with Luis, a tough-looking Hispanic kid, for an English project, Sam's whole modus operandi is threatened. Sam is sure Luis is a gang member; his brother is infamous for his involvement in gangs, and Luis has a huge scar running up his neck. Sam knows there will be no slacking or hiding this time-if he doesn't do his part in their slam poetry assignment, Luis is bound to pummel him into the ground. But not everything is as it seems with Luis. Can these two boys from seemingly different worlds actually be friends? 

I love this book! Flores-Scott does an amazing job creating sympathetic characters, and the friendship that develops between these two boys is really quite sweet. Sam is the narrator, so his internal life and perspective are easy to see, but Flores-Scott uses Luis' poetry to give us insight into his character that proves his tough exterior is protecting a tender soul with depths of thought and feeling people wouldn't assume just by looking at him. I think that teens who have ever been misjudged by others based on the way they look, or because they are part of a stereotyped group, will completely get Luis and his internal struggle. 

Because Luis is so enthusiastic about the poetry assignment, he is able to inspire Sam as well. Sam has his own issues; his mom left two years ago, and he has a love of the rock of the Pacific Northwest (musical, not mineral) that none of his classmates seem to share. He feels isolated and alone most of the time, and he adopts his slacker persona as a cover for these feelings, and as a way to cope with feeling so out of place at school. The way he blossoms through his friendship with Luis is a reversal of the white savior syndrome that so many books about young people of color and their white teachers/peers fall into. Luis is the one that saves Sam, not the other way around. Though Sam does get his chance to repay the friendship Luis showed him; after a gang fight, Luis disappears, and Sam has to put himself front and center with teachers and peers in a way that he never would have if Luis hadn't become such an influence in his life.

The high-interest nature of this book, coupled with the easy readability, make it a good choice for inclusion in a readers' workshop or other independent reading activity. It would also make a good novel to use in middle or high school (with lower level readers) to explore friendship, assumptions, stereotypes, and overcoming personal challenges.
 
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