Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: The Black and the Blue by Matthew Horace

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I work with children with physical and mental differences. The place I work at is stocked with a variety of toys. One of the toys we have are a police car that makes a siren sound whenever a button is pressed.

Almost every child that comes recognizes this vehicle. Some can say “police car!” Some, if their mental capabilities are high enough, will enact play schemes with the police car and another vehicle where the cops catch a bad guy.

This image played over and over in my mind as I read The Black and the Blue.

Matthew Horace does an excellent job of covering the topic of police brutality in America and the Black Lives Matter Movement. The Black and the Blue includes both statistics and personal accounts of both the author as well as witnesses and victims of the crimes.  Horace draws on his own law enforcement background to explain how police training and procedures are suppose to work, which highlights just how wrong (and purposeful) the actions of police are in many of these killings. Though far from surprised, I was struck at the level of systemic racism within law enforcement.  

This is a difficulty but important book to read. When I put it down, I told myself I needed to read something light and fluffy. However, I also recognize that as a privilege. Not everybody has the ability to take a break from these topics. For many people, this is life.  

Throughout the book, Horace also includes interviews with other police offices of different walks of life: white and black, male and female, gay and straight. These voices serve to show the diversity in the police forces and as a reminder that not all police are bad, but all police are working in a bad system. The book focuses on the crimes police have committed on the black community in America, but Horace also talks about some of the other systemic problems facing this community as well. He states that Black Lives Matter cannot stop at the brutality and murders committed by police. It must also work to stop the harm done by gangs and drugs as well.

The Black and the Blue ends with the author quoting a song lyric: “Everybody can do something”. After reading this book, my thoughts turned to finding ways that I too can do something about this problem. How can I help reality match the play schemes of the children I work with, where police are the good guys who defend and protect ALL communities?

 

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: The Witches by Roald Dahl

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Warning: This review contains a small spoiler for the end of the book.

September 13th was Roald Dahl day, a yearly celebration of the author’s work that takes place on his birthday. As a kid, I grew up watching James and the Giant Peach, Willy Wonka, and Matilda. I especially liked the later, since the main character was as obsessed about books as me. I remember my teachers reading the novels these three movies are based on outloud to the class, but that’s where my exposure to Dahl stopped. Since my social media feeds were blowing up last week with Roald Dahl quotes, I decided to give another one of his novels a try.

The Witches has all the things you come to expect from Dahl: child main character, bad guys (or gals, in this case), gross humor, and little touches of sweetness and wisdom stirred into the mix. The story follows Lucas, a young child who lives with his grandmother, an expert on witches. She imparts what she knows about the subject to him, namely all the physical ways to identify a witch and that their main goal is to kill children.  One day, he encounters a group of witches, including the High Witch, and has the opportunity to get rid of them…if he’s brave and smart enough.

Dahl’s writing reminds me of JK Rowling and other great children’s authors. The prose moves along quickly and smoothly and keeps you entertained. While there are poinent things said about people committing evil actions, teamwork, and the power of having a loving family, The Witches does not appear to have a hidden meaning. Dahl trusted children to be smart enough to understand the points he was making outright and didn’t try to spoon feed them a sappy “moral”.  

The witches in the book are violent creatures, and their intentions are presented outright. Though they use silly sounding words  like “squelching” to describe what they want to do with children, Lucas states outright at one point that they are plotting to kill him.  In this children’s novel, violence is depicted an aspect of the world and not hidden or downplayed. Nor are the evil things done by the witches magically reversed at the end of the story. However, through the character of Lucas’s grandmother (a badass cigar smoking grandmother, by the way) Dahl also shows that compassion and love are also present in the world. Lucas’s grandmother says several times throughout the story that she loves her grandson, no matter what he looks like. When bad things happen to him and he is afraid, Lucas draws strength from the fact that he knows his grandmother loves him. The importance of communicating unconditional love to children was not lost on this adult reader.

The story ends with the knowledge that while some of the witches were killed by Lucas’s actions, other witches still exist in the world. Lucas and his grandmother make plans to continue fighting them, driving home the point that removing evil is a slow and continuous process, but one we must keep working towards. Not a bad thing to meditate on in 2018.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. That being said, several parts felt a little dated (it was written in the 80s) and problematic.  Dahl states early on in the story that not all women are bad, but Witches are always women. The importance placed on gender (and a gender of only two sides at that) just feels odd today. More disturbing, there are several references made to women with bald heads (one of the indicators that a woman is a witch) as being unnatural and offensive. What about women undergoing chemo? What about women from cultures where it’s more common to shave their head? What about women who just…want to shave their heads? Without saying it, the novel paints the picture of women who meet traditional society standards of appearance as being “normal” or “ok” and women falling outside of this as being suspect of wanting to do harmful things.  The rest of the novel was wonderful. I could have done without this part. I don’t think the novel would have suffered with the exclusion of them.

That being said, would I let a child read this? I’d probably recommend another book with the same themes first. If the child still wanted to read the book, I’d let them, and then have a conversation about the problematic aspects afterwards.  If they are capable of understanding this book, they are capable of understanding that conversation as well.

Happy late Roald Dahl Day!      

 

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Book Review: The True Secret of Writing by Natalie Goldberg

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I discovered Natalie Goldberg in high school when I read a copy of her first book, Writing Down the Bones. As a young person who wanted to write, it was freeing to read that you didn’t have to write in order to please someone or be published; all you had to do was grab a pen and paper and write. Pure and simple.

After Bones, I read three more of her books before moving onto other authors, and I stopped keeping up with her work. Recently, I stumbled across her page on Goodreads and noticed that while I had been reading elsewhere, Natalie was still writing and publishing. It’s funny how writers do that.

This 2013 book, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life and Language is a description of the writing retreat of the same name that she hosts.  Don’t worry, it doesn’t contain bottled down “do this and you will be published” trash advice, despite what the title seems to imply. In fact, early in the book Natalie states that there is no true secret of writing that works for everyone. Like most of Goldberg’s books, True Secret discusses Zen Buddhism and how the spiritual implications of both the practice of Zen and writing are interwoven for Natalie. It also covers the overarching philosophy of Sit, Walk, Write that she uses in the retreat. As I understand it, sitting and slow walking are more traditional forms of Zen meditation. Writing (specifically, the type of timed freewriting described in her works) is a form of practice developed by her. For the most part, the book doesn’t cover any ground that her previous book on writing haven’t already. If you are new to her writing, I would start with her earlier works, as I think they lay out her approach to writing in a more straightforward way–particularly Writing Down the Bones. However, True Secret was still a joy to read. Seeing the author once again tackle the same themes she describes so well was like listening to an old friend tell a story that you’ve heard numerous times before but still love the telling of it. I came away with a renewed drive to continue my own writing.

The last section of the book contains some of its best writing, particularly the chapter Gwen, an account of one of Natalie’s students who is dying of cancer. It strikes me that Natalie’s books contain chapters (each one a self contained essay, really) that are so scattered. There is a chapter about assigning chores to the retreat students, another about what it’s like to try writing at the same time in the same place every day for a week, and then a moving chapter about what it means to live fully before dying. Yet the book still forms a cohesive whole. Her books are like boxes of chocolate. Each little section  needs to hold a piece for the box to be complete, and yet each chocolate is its own individual delicacy.

Hopefully, Natalie will continue to follow her own advice of sitting, walking, and writing.  Hopefully, we will get to keep reading the books that come from this practice.

 

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Book Review: Becoming Madeleine

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Becoming Madeline is a biography of the author Madeleine L’engle, written for middle-grade readers by her granddaughters Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy.

Like most people, I first encountered L’engle through A Wrinkle in Time. I was in the 7th or 8th grade and it was unlike anything I had read before. The small book was weird, comforting, wise, and life-affirming in a way that was at the same time both familiar and radical.

Over the next few years I devoured most of her work. Discovering L’engle during my middle and high school years had a tremendous impact on my outlook on life.

Alike and equal are not the same thing!

Your greatest faults can also be your greatest gifts!

In the end, all will be well!

When I took a trip to New York in 2007, I visited the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where L’engle worked as writer in residence for several years.

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My grandmother, a librarian, was also a fan of L’engle’s writing.  When I would buy and read a new book I’d lend it to her and we would discuss it. After she passed away, I took her copy of Bright Evening Star and found an inscription on the first page, a testament to the impact L’engle’s words had on her.

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I approached Becoming Madeleine with excitement and yet was sure that I would find nothing new here. Madeleine L’engle wrote a number of autobiographical works, so I wasn’t sure what else could be said about her life that I hadn’t already read. However, by telling L’engle’s story in chronological order, rather than through the random snippets as they are presented in her own work, allowed me to see her story in a different light. Anyone familiar with L’engle’s work knows how important time, and the order one experiences it in, can be!

Of particular fascination to me was the inclusion of Madeleine’s diary entries. Not only was it intriguing to get a look at her private writing, but it also allowed the reader see how the themes that permeated her work (time, love, God, faith, science, and the horrors of war) were at the forefront of her thinking, even at a young age, and were always evolving.

The biography stops just after the publication of a Wrinkle in Time. This was disappointing, as I would have liked to have seen how Madeleine moved through her later years. However, the book is written for middle-grade readers; therefore, the story focuses heavily on her younger years when she was the same age as the intended audience.

Voiklis and Roy have written a loving and satisfying account of a writer that has impacted many people and continues to impact more each day. If you are a long-time L’engle reader or just discovering her work, this is a book you won’t want to miss.  

 

–Sunday, February 11th, 2018

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: Why We Write by Meredith Maran

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Why We Write by Meredith Maran is a collection of twenty essays written by published novelist on the topic of why (and sometimes how) each author goes about the crafting fiction. Each essay is preceded by an introduction of the author and a “Vitals” bulleted list of highlights about the author (born, education, where they live, complete list of works, etc.). Each essay concludes with a “Wisdom for Writers” section, a bulleted list of take-away points the author made in his or her essay.

A portion of the proceeds of the book are given to support 826 National, a youth literacy program.

The editor pulled together a diverse collection of authors. Some of them include Sue Grafton, David Baldacci, Gish Jen, Armistead Maupin, and Terry McMillan. Not only are they diverse in gender, sexual orientation, culture, and race, but they are exist on various points of the “literary vs entertainment” spectrum of publishing. This topic comes up in a number of the essays. Some authors embrace the literary or entertainment camp to which they belong, others take the opportunity to bash the opposing side.  More than a few authors dismiss this continuum as a marketing or hegemonic device designed to pander to a certain demographic. The later essays were the most interesting.    

While the book presented a diverse collection of viewpoints, I couldn’t help but notice that certain genres were left out. There were authors from “mainstream” literature as well as the mystery and thriller genres. However, there were no authors of speculative or YA books.  Why We Write was published in 2013, during the time when these genres were rapidly gaining in both popularity and recognition as quote-unquote “serious” forms of literature. It could be that the author reached out to some of these authors and they weren’t interested or couldn’t fit a contribution into their schedules. However, I can’t help but feel that including authors from these backgrounds would further round out the book and the discussion of why individuals feel compelled to write fiction.

The twenty authors in the book state a wide array of reasons behind why they do what they do. However, one central theme crops up in each of their responses: Writing sucks, but not writing sucks worse; one never feels that a piece is completely finished, but having written is a wonderful feeling.

As someone who dabbles in writing and is always looking for more time to complete larger projects, I completely agree. And, in it’s own dark way, it is comforting to read twenty writers state that they belong in the same mental hell that is being a writing human. I think I’ll keep the book on my desk for inspiration and comfort the next time I find myself banging my head against the wall when writing gets difficult.      

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Book Review: Biblio Tech by John Palfrey

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Libraries have been around for a while and will go extinct if they do not adapt to modern society.

That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of Biblio Tech. The author, John Palfrey, a law professor and library director discusses several factors that have changed  the way we procure information. Most notable, and no surprise to anyone reading I’m sure, is the internet.  The author comes down strong on the case that libraries can no longer be large storehouses for books and other information, waiting for people to come to them. Rather, libraries must take a more active role in becoming information synthesizers and distributors.

Within the ten chapters of the book, Palfrey expands on his vision that libraries must become interconnected through the internet and technology and thus become “hubs” of a giant information database. He describes ways in which some libraries are already doing this. He also discusses how libraries have failed in procuring a role in the “Digital Age”. Then, he lays out a plan for libraries to move forward. Each library contributes its specialized collection of information into a comprehensive whole that is available to anyone with access to technology (Something libraries can continue to offer as well!) The book makes the case for libraries continuing to be both a physical space for hard copy media while expanding their online presence and offerings. The book takes a strong stance against doing away with librarians or allowing the field to be flooded with professionals with backgrounds in areas other than information science. The giant “hub” of information would be a wonderful accomplishment. However, we’ll need trained professionals to help the rest of us navigate this world of information and find what we need. In our post-truth and “alternative facts” society, librarians play a very important role.

Throughout the book, Palfrey sprinkles in a defense of why libraries should continue to exist in the era of Google, Facebook, and numerous for-profit online databases. Libraries, in the purest form of the institution, are truly free, open to everyone, and exist without a double-motive. They are simply there to provide people with the information they want and need.

I’ve always been an on-again off-again user of libraries. However, after reading Biblio Tech, I’m going to make it a point to utilize more of the resources my local library has to offer.

The book ends with a potent passage on the importance of libraries:

“It is not too much of a stretch to say that the fate of well-informed, open, free republics could hinge on the future of libraries. Maureen Sullivan, then-president of the American Library Association and one of the great librarians who give me hope, told me: “The reason I think the future of libraries is so important is because I want to ensure that every child in AMerica has access to the information he or she needs to be well-informed before casting a vote.” Our public, institutions have every reason to work together on a common, bright, delightful, digital-era future. Libraries matter too much to democracies for us to fail at this task.”

–John Palfrey, Biblio Tech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google

 

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Book Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

 

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Psychological thrillers aren’t my usual cup of tea. I enjoyed Gone Girl, but haven’t read any of the other books in that vein that have been released recently. If I’m in the mood for a mystery, I tend to lean towards the Agatha Christie and Alan Bradley side of the spectrum. I stumbled across The Girl on the Train sort of by accident.

I was making plans for an upcoming trip that would take about three hours by car, and I was looking for things to listen to during the drive. I’m a big podcast fan but have never really gotten into audio books. I wish I could. I salivate when I think about the amount of books I could tear through if I listened to them will I cooked dinner, folded laundry, or completed paperwork. But every time I listen to them my mind wanders. By the time I’ve realized this and brought my attention back to the book, I’ve missed several minutes and have to rewind it. It’s just not my brain’s prefered way to soak up a narrative.

Nevertheless, I have a hard time taking no for an answer. Every so often I’ll give another audiobook a try. I’d recently moved to a new county and gotten a library card for a new system, so I explored their Overdrive selection and Girl on the Train was one of the few books that seemed interesting and was available. So, I gave it a try.

Two things came out of that experiment. First, I learned, again, that I’m not an audiobook person. Second, once I got back from my trip, I went to Barnes and Noble and snatched up a paperback copy of The Girl on the Train because I had to see how it ended.

The novel follows a woman named Rachel who is divorced from a husband who cheated on her, has lost her job (but hasn’t told her landlady/roommate) and who is suffering from alcohol addiction. She takes a train every day into London (hence the title) to sit in the library or a bar and kill time so that her landlady doesn’t find out she’s unemployed and kick her out. While on the train, she passes the house she use to live in that now belongs to her ex-husband and his new wife. Another couple lives down the street from the house. Rachel begins to watch the couple every time she passes the house and crafts a story around their lives. In her head, the couple, who she names Jessica and Jess, have a storybook marriage. However, when the train passes by one day and Rachel spies something disturbing going on at their house. Soon after, the woman turns up missing. Rachel feels she must get involved, and from there the novel gets twisty and turny real quick!

I won’t say anything else, but a lot more happens in the novel. I enjoyed the character of Rachel. She’s not a likeable character, and in fact some of her choices had me yelling at the book in that don’t-go-in-the-house-the-killer-is-waiting-for-you sort of way. But her alcoholism is depicted very realistically in the book. I believe that Rachel, for all of her problems, really wanted to help in the situation presented in the novel; however, her drinking problem made it difficult for her to focus or make the best decisions. Throughout the novel, she is caught up in a cycle of drinking, trying to pick herself up, realizing she needed to stop drinking, then drinking again. After a while it began to get redundant and I felt like the author was repeating the same scenario over and over. But then I realized that was the point. Someone suffering from alcoholism does become trapped in that cycle.

While I read the novel, I thought about the state of mental health services in our country, and our “suck it up and power through it” answer to people suffering from mental health issues. I don’t think The Girl on the Train is the best book to depict alcoholism. There are other books that tackle the subject more head on than this novel’s fast-paced thriller plot allows. But the book does let us inside the head of someone suffering from an addiction. It shows us that for people with this problem it’s not as simple as wanting to put down the drink and just trying really hard to not pick it up again. And I think that’s an important narrative to read.

The novel is told in first person from the point of view of Rachel and two other characters. Like I said, audiobooks are not for me, but I did enjoy how each character’s chapters were read by a different narrator in the audiobook version. If you are an audiobook person, I’d recommend it.

I think I’ll check out the move soon and see how it compares to the book.

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: The Love Interest by Cale Deitrich

 

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This book was fun! Good summer reading fun! 

If you’re looking for something heavy with plusable world-building and a slow moving plot then this book is not for you. However, if you’re in the mood for a novel with an angsty M/M/F love triangle, teenage spies, a secret organization, and killer robots (killer robots!) then this is a must read.

Caden is a spy for the Love Interest Incorporated, an organization who sends highly trained teenagers into the field to make their assigned targets fall in love with them. The goal is that they will eventually get married. The corporation then uses the spies to influence their targets, always people who show signs that they will grow up to become top players in their professional fields.  

When pairing the target with their love interest spy, the corporation always sends a Nice( a boy-next-door type) and a bad (a wrong-side-of-the-tracks type). The two spies complete for the targets affection until they make a choice. Once that happens, the losing love interest is killed by the corporation (talk about an incentive to work hard). Caden is determined to win, but there is a problem: he starts having feelings for his rival love interest, Dil.

Though the book contains science fiction elements, the plot stays focused on the relationships between the two love interests and their target, a girl named Juliet who has a knack for inventing complex technological gadgets. There’s a lot of introspection as the main character sorts out his feelings for his target and his rival. The past few YA books that I’ve read that feature gay characters showed teenagers who understood their sexual identity from an early age. The Love Interest is different in that it depicts Caden realizing he has feelings for a boy and coming to terms with them. As I read, I couldn’t help but feel that this probably rang true for the many teenagers who don’t grow up realizing their gay at an early age. It was nice to see this represented in YA fiction.

The dialogue is light, the plot is fast moving, the characters are likeable, and, in short, this was a very entertaining novel.  If Hollywood wasn’t so scared of putting gay characters on the big screen, it would make a great summer blockbuster style action movie.

If I had any complaints with the book, it would be with some of the story elements in the third act. Some of the dialogue and character actions felt like they had been included to extend the page length and simply for the sake of building tension. They didn’t add to the plot or flesh out the characters. But this is a minor gripe. Overall, the book was great!

I can’t wait to see what Deitrich writes next!

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Book Review: Goodbye Days by Jeff Zenter

Spoiler Alert: I tried very hard not to give away too much, but my review does contain some small details about novel’s plot. Sometimes it’s hard to gauge when the providing a synopsis ends and spoilers begin. If you want to read the book knowing absolutely nothing beforehand, wait until after you’ve finished before reading this review.

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I became a huge fan of Jeff Zenter after reading his first book, The Serpent King. I approached this book hoping it would be ever bit as fulfilling as the first, and it did not disappoint.

Goodbye Days follows Carver Briggs, the main character who sent a text to his friend Mars while he was driving. This act may or may not have lead to Mars crashing his car, killing himself and his two passengers, Carver’s other friends. Following the funerals, Carver begins to hold a series of “Goodbye Days”, a day for each of his departed friends, where he spends time with their parents and loved ones. The intent is that they will spend the day doing things that the departed enjoyed and tell stories about them. It gives them a chance to say goodbye and celebrate their loved ones’ lives.

Carver has to deal with coming to terms with the death of his three friends and his possible role to play in the tragedy. We see how various friends and family members of the deceased teenagers deal with their grief, their varying reactions to Carver’s possible role in the deaths, and how losing a loved one effects their lives as well.

This is not light reading; however, it is not dark for the sake of being dark. Zenter is good at evoking the emotions that company depression and guilt, but he also does something much harder: he depicts the slow, jagged, uneven journey of moving through those motions to something that might be considered finding peace. I hesitate to go into too much detail for fear of dropping a spoiler, but will I’ll say that there is an emotional payoff to reading this novel. You’ll come away feeling satisfied and renewed.

Here’s a few things that stood out to me as I read:

1) The Humor. I know I said it was a dark novel, and it is. But Zenter knows how to balance the heavier themes with truly fulfilling comedy. I straight laughed out loud while reading this novel. What’s more delightful, the humor occurs amongst the interactions of the characters. Not only does this deepen the characterization, but it gives the reader this warm and fuzzy feelings you get when you see people who care about each other cracking inside jokes. At the risk of sounding prudish, most of the humor we find in our current tv shows, books, and social media feeds is spiteful in nature. It’s refreshing to see a piece of work that captures the feeling of close friends cracking well meaning, albeit still immature, jokes.

2) The South. I grew up in a small town in Western North Carolina. Both of Zenter’s books capture the nuances of living in the American south. The small town feel, the voice he gives to one of the character’s “Nana”, driving into a bigger town to go to the mall, the way religion is tied to everything, always hanging in the background. Zenter evokes this perfectly. His character’s are southern without being stereotypes.

3) Religion. It’s probably an unavoidable topic when writing southern fiction, even if your writing about today’s south, but the way Goodbye Days handles religion was refreshing. Carver beings to question his religion and belief in the afterlife for the first time in his life following the deaths. We see how several of the characters use religion, in both good and bad ways, in response to the deaths of their loved ones. The novel doesn’t beat you over the head with the topic. Rather, it gently plays with religion’s role in dealing with these life events. In some ways, it reminds me of Madeleine L’engle’s work. The presence of religion in the novel is not intended to convert, but to question.

4) Stories. The central theme of Goodbye Days is stories. How stories can help us heal after a terrible loss. How the stories we construct about someone will always leave out information we don’t know. How sharing stories with one another can be an act of fellowship, of repair. How stories can help us better understand our own feelings about something. Lately, we’ve heard a lot about “alternative facts”. This is a form of the misuse of story, of taking a narrative and twisting it to control, hurt, and gain power. This is what we talk about when we use the word story as a synonym of lying. But not all stories are lies. Goodbye Days is about the better types of stories, stories that heal, stories as an act of fellowship, stories as an act of hope.

Goodbye Days was another wonderful novel by Jeff Zenter. I just read on Goodreads that his third book now has a title, TV 6. It’s about two high school aged friends who host a “creature feature” show on their local cable channel. Can I get that now, please?