Tag Archives: realistic fiction

Book Review: Family is Central to A Place at the Table

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Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, excerpts, and reading guide.

This review includes a fairly detailed summary of the plot.  I leave the plot twist out though.

I’ve had an ARC of Susan Rebecca White’s book for years now. Sorry, Susan. But I’m glad that I waited this long to read it, because maybe I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much before I’d matured some more.

This is a heartbreaking story of pain and trauma, of otherness, of love and marriage and ultimately of survival, finding oneself, forgiveness, family, and accepting one’s roots and backstory.

This story follows three primary characters, whose lives all intersect over a cookbook and a shared love of food and a bright and cozy kitchen. It begins in 1929 in Emancipation Township, a black community in the rural, Jim Crow South. There we’re introduced to young siblings Alice and James Stone, close enough to believe that they are able to read one another’s thoughts. After refusing to play the meek black man, James is forced to flee North Carolina.

Leaving the Stones, we join Bobby Banks, a pastor’s son, white, probably upper-middle class, in 1970 Decatur, Georgia. His Meemaw lives in a neighborhood that is now mostly African American. He tries to befriend one of the neighborhood girls, but his brother’s racist language thwarts that. Later in 1977, he finds himself friends with a displaced Yankee, his equal on the track team. The two of them find themselves more than friends when alcohol, a late night, and a sleepover coincide, and Bobby begins a life in exile from his family, first with his Meemaw and later, in 1981, in New York City, where we stay with him through 1991. Bobby during his early years in New York finds himself working at the restaurant, a once-renowned haunt of writers and bohemians, where Alice Stone was once the well-known and –loved chef. He returns the restaurant to its gentrified-Southern roots and gains fame for himself. His time in New York coincides with the AIDS epidemic of the ‘80s, and he loses his lover and partner to the disease.

Alice’s editor and friend has a niece, Amelia, living in upper-middle class Connecticut. She marries a Southerner from Georgia, who as they begin their life as empty-nesters in 1990, turns emotionally abusive towards her. She struggles with her desire to make her marriage successful and the fear for her own safety.

Individually, each character’s story of hardship and survival is fascinating.

If I was not necessarily eager to return to this book between minutes I was able to read, neither did I want to stay away, with which as much heartache as was in the book and knowing that I tend to avoid reading about characters in deep pain, I think must mean that these characters were well-developed and compelling.

For all that Alice is the glue that holds these stories together (it’s Alice’s restaurant that takes in Bobby, and Alice’s editor’s niece), it’s Bobby with whom we spend the most time, and whose story is explored most fully. As the true tale unwinds, Bobby, though, seems the outside observer, and the story seems more fully Alice’s and Amelia’s and James’. That was a little jarring, but Alice, Amelia, and James’ story makes up in emotional wallop what it lacks in page count.

What all these characters share—apart from a love of good food and cooking—is an exile from family, a crumbling of the idyllic family, and a longing for the return to home (Alice’s cookbook is Homegrown). Alice’s family is broken when James is forced to flee, and James’ worldview is shattered when he realizes himself to be part-white before being forced to flee his home. Bobby is kicked out of his family home after he is discovered kissing a boy. On his grandmother’s advice, he like James before him, leaves the hostile South altogether for the rumored, liberal paradise of New York City. Amelia has never spent time in New York—her family never visited, though they were nearby—but when her own marriage falls apart and with her children out of the house, she finds herself seeking comfort from her aunt, who lives there. Alice and Bobby both cling to their Southern roots through the food that they eat and prepare for others, even as they make new lives for themselves in New York. Amelia discovers her own Southern roots.

None of the characters return to the South but each of them is awarded some measure of reconciliation with their families. So it seems that family is the root to which White argues that one should return and with which one must reconcile to be fully known to oneself.

***1/2

White, Susan Rebecca. A Place at the Table. New York: Touchstone-Simon & Schuster, 2013.

This review is not endorsed by Susan Rebecca White, Touchstone, or Simon & Schuster, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review of an ARC by a reader.

In the interest of full disclosure, Miss White is an alumna of the graduate program at my alma mater.

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Book Review: Importantly Diverse Cast of Relatable Characters in Hello, Universe

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, trailer, kaleidoscope instructions, and author's bio.

This review contains minor spoilers.

We were lucky enough to have an ARC of Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe show up at our store. Isabel Roxas’ cover art caught my eye, and then I enjoyed the first chapter or two that I read quickly on a lunch break, but it was the wonderfully diverse cast of minority and under-represented characters that made me hug the book to my chest and stuff it into my bag.

The story opens with Virgil Salinas, a Filipino-American. He is a self-described “grand failure” and it’s not till several chapters in that the reader discovers why: because he failed to talk to the girl that he is crushing on and with whom he believes he is fated to be friends. He is very shy and lonely. He is a black sheep in his outgoing family, teased and misunderstood by his parents and brothers, closest to his Lola (grandmother) and, of course, to his guinea pig, Gulliver.

The following chapter introduces us to Valencia Somerset. Valencia has been having a repeated nightmare. She is lonely too, isolated by her impairment (she is deaf in both ears and wears hearing aids to help her interact with the world) and her mother’s lack of understanding. Valencia wraps herself in observing nature, taking detailed notes in her notebook and hoping to be like Jane Goodall. She seeks solace in religion but lacks any religious schooling and so has pieced together her own religion, centering mostly on Saint Rene, a martyr who was deaf, whom the Canadians believed was hexing a boy instead of blessing him.

Next comes Kaori Tanaka, whom I suspect is Japanese-American from the name alone, a self-proclaimed psychic with colorful past lives, whose assistant is her younger sister, Gen.

Last of the POV characters is Chet Bullens, a bully from Virgil’s and Valencia’s school, who comes by his prejudices and fears of others honestly.

Because this book takes place at the very onset of summer vacation, the problems and drama of the book are less about school and more about family, friendships, and budding romances, personalities, and overcoming fears.

There is danger and action and heroism.

Virgil goes to rescue his guinea pig, and Valencia, Kaori, and Gen come to rescue him.  And to quote another book in another genre entirely, “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other.

It wasn’t till after I’d finished the book and was pondering the title that I realized that what I’d taken as a writer manipulating a plot was meant to be a helpful and caring universe manipulating lives and interactions. That’s a clever way to hide a writer’s work in plain sight, Kelly. Every action the characters take is leading the three—Virgil, Kaori, and Valencia—towards friendship.

There are still choices that Kelly made that I don’t yet understand fully, even though I now am confident that she has a good reason behind what she does. Only Valencia’s chapters are headed with her name, every chapter but her last, which is called “Messages.” Every other character’s POV chapter is headed by a more traditional chapter title. Each POV character is assigned a particular illustration instead to denote that the chapter is from his or her point of view: a snake for Chet, Gulliver the guinea pig for Virgil, a songbird with her nest for Valencia, and an astronomy chart for Kaori. I didn’t actually notice till another reviewer pointed it out that Valencia is also the only one to have her POV chapters written in the first person, so close is the third person writing of the others.

I think it particularly important to have brave, strong, no-nonsense Valencia as a heroine and shy, quiet Virgil as a hero, no less so because he is so shy and quiet.  Though Virgil is changed by his experience, having gained more self-confidence from facing danger and his worst fears and at the end of the novel does stand up for himself both to Chet and to his family and does talk to Valencia, he is still shy, still quiet, and not faulted for being so–at least not by Valencia and it seems not by Kelly, who allows him to still mutter and avoid eye-contact.  This book is important for those who will see themselves in its pages, see examples of their cultures, of their struggles—and for those outside of those cultures to both recognize the unique perspectives and struggles of those others and to see their own struggles—of loneliness and shyness and hardheaded parents and feeling an outsider—in these characters from other cultures. Moreover, these were characters I enjoyed spending time with—all except Chet. I felt for them all, hoped for them all, enjoyed their perspectives and observations. I’ve already begun recommending it to readers who enjoy realistic fiction and school stories.

****

Kelly, Erin Entrada. Hello, Universe. New York: Greenwillow-HarperCollins, 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Erin Entrada Kelly, Greenwillow Books, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review of an ARC by a reader.

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Book Review: Sheep Investigate Humanity and a Murder in Three Bags Full

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9780767927055Set in rural Ireland in the 1990s, I never would have suspected this to be a German work. Admittedly, I’m not overly familiar with German crime novels or rural Ireland in the 1990s, but I had always suspected this to be an Irish import because there are a few puns here that I assume work better in English than in German—Miss Maple a nod to Miss Marple but named for the syrup that she steals from George’s pancakes; Ramses the Ram—but also because of the intimate portrayal of the setting.

This is a book I read and enjoyed ages back now—probably in 2007, almost a decade ago (isn’t that terrifying). It’s traveled with me since, but it’s only now that I returned to it, caught between books and not wanting to get sucked into anything too gripping and confined only to what I could reach without displacing my cat.

And I enjoyed it at least as much. It was almost good that that long time had passed because I’d forgotten important details like the identity of the murderer—though I was surprised what details I found myself however vaguely remembering.

Told mainly from the perspective of a flock of sheep whose reclusive shepherd is found dead in their pasture on page 1, this novel winds its way through the sordid histories of a small and insular town—romantic rivalries, past and present sins, rumors of drug runners among them—as well as the sheep’s own histories and prejudices and superstitions. The sheep in their sheepiness only comprehend so much of the human stories. Their misunderstanding, partial understanding, and incomprehension give the human reader time to reflect on the actions and beliefs of the human characters and all human characters by extension, to see them with an outsider’s eye as sometimes confusing or incomprehensible, while laughing at ourselves and at the sheep.

The depth of Swann’s immersion into sheepy thinking and culture was perhaps one of the more impressive aspects for me of the story.

The story rollicks between quaint and racy all while alluding to famous works of literature from Agatha Christie to Shakespeare to Emily Brontë.

For example, “A play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king!” the sheep cry—or no, they don’t, but like Hamlet they concoct a play in the hopes that their dramatics might bring about a confession or an arrest—“justice” they actually do bleat repeatedly throughout the novel. Miss Maple, the cleverest sheep in all of Glennkill, concocts a play wherein Zora as George dies spectacularly, Maple plays the killer, and Mopple the Whale brings forth the clues to the killer’s identity that the sheep hope that the humans might understand.

I was amused this time around to discover that the sheep in the corner is not only a flip book illustration set but a barometer of the level of danger the sheep feel at any given point in the text.

I’m not sure how well I can judge this book as a crime novel or a mystery; I read so few books in that genre, but as a work of fiction, I do really enjoy it. It’s so wonderfully different, and it kept me guessing, and it kept me thinking both about the plot and about humanity and reality.

****

Swann, Leonie. Three Bags Full. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Doubleday/Flying Dolphin-Doubleday, 2006. First published 2005 by Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag-Random.

This review is not endorsed by Leonie Swann, Anthea Bell, Doubleday, Doubleday/Flying Dolphin, Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag, or Random House.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

It seems that Penguin Random is now the US publisher.

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Book Review: Five Big Stars for The Blackthorn Key!

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blackthorn-key-9781442388536_hrKevin Sands’ The Blackthorn Key, starts with the words “Let’s build a canon.” A promising beginning.   One that had me reading the paperback of this book—newly out—as I walked it back to its place in the store. Then when I got home I remembered that I had a sample of the book, and read the first two chapters through, and debated more seriously still purchasing the paperback.

Then I went on a road trip, and having recently been reintroduced to audiobooks by a friend who started me on Huck Finn, I decided to go to the local library and see what audiobooks I might be able to bring with me to make the hours pass—and I found this book. The first leg of my trip was 4 hours to the first stop and another 6 hours to the second stop. I spent a good bit of that time (the whole recording is 7 hours and 21 minutes) in Restoration London with an apothecary’s apprentice and his best friend, the baker’s son, Tom.

When I’d reached my first stop, I was raved to the friend that I visited about the book that I was listening to, telling her to go and buy the thing, even though I was only maybe two or three hours into the story. Getting into the car when we had to part ways was not as hard because I knew that Chris, Tom, and the mystery into which they’d been thrust were waiting for me.

By the time that I arrived at my final destination, I was raving to my mother, telling her about the whirlwind adventure I’d just been on, and how the dark back roads of Pennsylvania hadn’t seemed so long or so lonely with this book for company.

The codes and charts and solved puzzles were harder to understand in audio form, but that was my one rub with the reading itself. Lines like

img_0725aloud are just as perplexing, but… lengthier. It’s the sort of thing that the eyes can glaze over and gather the gist, but a reader has to take time to say. And a chart such as

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is equally lengthy and confusing. Mind, the printing of the chart in this Find Your Hero Chapter Sampler is actually more confusing for its set up than was Panthaki’s reading (A 22, B 23, C 24, etc. is how it was read in the recording), but that may have been fixed in the final layout.

Otherwise, it took me maybe only a few minutes to be on board with Ray Panthaki, a London-born, British actor (producer, writer, director, Renaissance man), as a narrator, who was subtle about the voices that he gave the characters, for the most part, but who did provide me with voices, which helped to liven the dialogue I’m sure and also helped to keep straight the various characters when dialogue tags were not something I could see for myself. No one seemed overblown and no one stood out unduly from the crowd, which is, I feel, one danger in narrating with voices.

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, and this story is set a little late in history for me to gravitate towards it (I tend to say—and it’s not entirely a joke—that my knowledge of history ends right around 1600), but there was plenty to keep me entertained and engaged, sitting—especially those last few hours as the mystery raced towards its reveal—on the edge of my seat and clinging to the wheel in front of me: action, mystery, politics, heart-wringing circumstances inflicted onto characters that I grew fairly quickly to care about, magic (or science; here apothecary, potions-maker, woodswitch, and alchemist are all only so many steps from one another—and that is all addressed in the text), the uplifting story of an orphan escaping abuse and poverty to find love and riches and purpose, loyal friends, children getting the better of adults…. Now that I’m listing them I see that those are a lot of the same elements that make Harry Potter so enjoyable.

And I know from working in a bookstore and trying to help customers find books to suit school assignments how difficult it is to find historical fiction—or mystery for that matter—for that 8-12 range. I am going to hope that most teachers will accept this as historical fiction. Certainly I learned some about the time.

My one reserve about the text itself is that Sands doesn’t shy from gore or cruelty or torture. That’s fine but maybe not for the youngest of ears. In Barnes & Noble, this book lives in a section marked for ages 7-12. The audiobook warns that it’s recommended for ages 10-14. I know some 10 year olds who would be squigged out by some of the more gruesome injuries inflicted on the characters. Parents, use caution. As always, I recommend reading the book before or with your child. Know what they’ll be able to handle, and be ready to talk to them if they need reassurance or have questions.

*****

Sands, Kevin. The Blackthorn Key.  2015.  Narr. Ray Panthaki. Compact discs. Simon & Schuster Audio, 2015.

This review is not endorsed by Kevin Sands, Ray Panthaki, Simon & Schuster, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: Fahrenheit 451: A Fiery Critique of Modern Entertainment

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16280156After having read a lot of light, modern, conversational Riordan, I was craving something with more depth and more flowery flare. I floundered for a while and asked everyone I knew for suggestions of writers who have a mastery of language to rival Patrick Rothfuss’. In the end, I picked up this old favorite: Fahrenheit 451.

I can’t tell you when I read Fahrenheit 451. It might’ve been almost a decade ago. I didn’t remember as much of the plot as I thought that I had, though I remembered a great bit of the sentiment.

Ray Bradbury’s writing (I’ve already mentioned) has left a deep scar on my heart and mind. His poetic prose and command of language and meter is something to which I aspire and which I greatly admire.

This book was especially impacting to read now—now in the wake of all that is happening in the world and all that I fear may soon happen in the world.

It’s amazing how prophetic some science-fictions/future dystopias can be.

Guy Montag is a firefighter in a future America. Instead of fighting fires, he sets them; he sets fires to books and to the homes of those who are found in possession of books. Books are a source of chaos. Books foment rebelliousness. Books are a toxin to the world that has been sedated and made happy by noise and glitter and flash and distraction. Interaction has been replaced by walls—television screens that are as large as a wall, and of which a person is intended to have four, so that they can be fully immersed in the programming, which also can be set to include a viewer’s name, to further the immersive escapism.

The world outside of the walls is about to go to war, but the newscasters are quick to gloss over the fact, and quick to dismiss the possibility of loss or hurt.

Montag’s been long curious about the nature of the oppression of which he is a part. He has been sneaking books home and hiding them. But it takes a series of encounters with a girl who seems more awake and more alive than anyone he’s ever met to convince him to act upon those secret curiosities and begin to read. A few lines and a desire for real conversation after that girl dies quickly spirals him into the world of secret bibliophiles and thinkers, concerned with preserving the knowledge of the ages and the culture of the past beyond themselves.

I sort of remembered this book ending hopefully, and I suppose in a way it does, but the city as been bombed, and the fringe society of scholars and bibliophiles and thinkers are heading back to the city to see if they can help.

Bradbury never says what becomes of the society, but leaves it with only those few heroes and a bombed ruin, death and loss and pain that most Americans didn’t see coming because they were too distracted by the escape and the light and the sound.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about where this love and fascination with distraction and noise is present today. If I say much else, I’m writing a very different blog post.

Suffice it to say, this is a book that I’m glad that I read in high school, and I’m glad that I read it now.

Bradbury’s vivid prose is escapism of a different kind because it makes me think instead of distracting me from thinking.

There were a few passages that I found significant enough to mark both in high school and again this past June—and this was I think the first book in 2016 to make me get a pencil to mark its passages.  Because they seemed so significant both times, I want to share them here:

“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, topheavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up. That way lies melancholy.” (61)

“The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.

“So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless.” (83)

“Most of us can’t rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book. […] Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore.” (86)

This book has a special place in my heart too for the reverential way that it talks about writers and book; I am something of a bibliophile or I probably wouldn’t have this blog.

*****

Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Del Rey-Random, 1953.

This review is not endorsed by Ray Bradbury, his estate, Del Rey Book, Random House Publishing Group, or Simon & Schuster, who seems to have acquired the current rights, because sometimes publishing is weird.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: The Thing About Jellyfish: Unique Voices, Creative Structuring

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e5b0ba3de84b3a8ad46bca1e4fe49f9dThis is a review of an ARC of Ali Benjamin’s middle grade novel, The Thing About Jellyfish.

I read it right after Looking For Alaska and promptly named January the month of books about kids who die too young. I became excited about this book only a few pages in. Benjamin’s writing is beautiful—and if you’ve been with me for any amount of time, you’ll know that I love poetic writing with clever descriptions and new ways of using old words. One of the things that excited me most was the relationship between the narrator’s older brother and his boyfriend. Yes, boyfriend. And no one was uncomfortable with the relationship, no one was upset by it, it was a non-issue—just a beautiful, loving partnership between two consenting adults. I thought at first that I was even reading a book with an African American narrator where her race was a nonissue and that made me doubly if not triply excited; I later determined from little things like sunburns that I was not and tried to contain my disappoint and enjoy Suzy as a white, middle-class American.

The jellyfish is both metaphorical and a real feature of the plot and of the text. Benjamin has done some serious research for this novel, and the text is seeded with many facts and thoughts about jellyfish–fascinating and sometimes horrifying. For the narrator Suzy, jellyfish become a constant worry, a constant threat, even though she does not seem to live at the seashore. Twenty-three people are stung by jellyfish every five seconds, Suzy finds out, and she spends several pages counting the number of stings, the number quickly growing.

Told in both the present and in italicized flashback, the almost yearlong story investigates the friendship between Suzy and Franny as Suzy processes the reality of Franny’s death, investigates the possibility that jellyfish were the external cause of Franny’s premature death, grieves her friend, and moves forward in her life. As Suzy moves nearer a resolution, the flashbacks move nearer a shattering, so the text seems like Suzy constantly unsettled. The interspersion of the past and present, though at times it is difficult to determine how far back Benjamin has taken us and where in the timeline a particular scene fits, works well to build a completed picture of Suzy’s and Franny’s relationship and does not feel like heavy-handed exposition. The book is divided into sections headed as a scientific report, echoing Suzy’s assignment, echoing Suzy’s private investigation, and offering a framework and lens through which to examine the various sections of the book. This in particular I think helped the story to maintain structure even with the fractured and disjointed timeline caused by interspersed flashbacks.

Suzy is presented as a seventh grader, but reads as younger. She fixates on science and on facts to the exclusion of the other interests and the interests in one another that her peers are developing. She has difficulty understanding or accepting the change that occurs in her friend Franny as Franny grows and grows apart from Suzy. She seems to have difficulty predicting others’ reactions to her actions—particularly in one instance involving Franny, which I won’t spoil. For these reasons as well as several instances of perseveration and Suzy’s impressive organization, I wonder if Suzy might be a child on the spectrum, though Benjamin never says so directly and it is never discussed.

I was impressed by the book more than I enjoyed it. It is difficult for me to enjoy an exploration of grief for a best friend and for a friendship fractured, but this book was uniquely structured and its facts were interesting. It explored marginalized voices without making an issue of the marginalization and fostered an environment of openness and acceptance and understanding. It explored death and grief and jellyfish and relationships and change. It did all of this in a succinct 339 pages.

If you enjoyed this story, I’m tempted to recommend, Betty Hicks’ The Worm Whisperer. Even though it’s been years since I read Hicks’, I feel like there are some palpable similarities between the two books in tone and in their surprising depth.

*****

Benjamin, Ali. The Thing About Jellyfish. New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2015.

This review is not endorsed by Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group, or Ali Benjamin.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Looking for Alaska and Looking for Answers

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9780142402511Looking for Alaska is my second John Green novel after The Fault in Our Stars. When I started out, Gwen, who graciously gave me her copy, warned that this was her least favorite, noting that in this novel is rougher, that what in his later novels gleams like gold and makes us all gold-sick, hoarding his book and wanting more, is not polished here. That was a pretty fair assessment. In the beginning, I noticed glimmers of beautiful wordsmithing and musicality. I think it more likely that I got sucked into the story and lost track of the poetry than that those glimmers disappeared, but they didn’t gleam enough for me to notice them once I was in the tunnel as they had when I read The Fault in Our Stars.

I knew fairly little about this book going in other than that it was a teen book of John Green’s. I’m not sure here what I should say and what I should keep to myself as spoilers.

It’s a contemporary fiction piece, a school story about outcasts and friends and prank wars and finding your place in the universe. Miles Halter leaves behind a life in Florida for a boarding school in Alabama. Miles wants to hang on to very little of his old life, to recreate himself, judging by how quickly he abandons the promises he made—and I’m sure all kids make—to his parents before they left him to live away from home for the first time: “No drugs. No drinking. No cigarettes” (7). Only that first rule does Miles not break, and the third he breaks within ten pages. Miles’ roommate, the Colonel, gives him almost immediately the nickname “Pudge” because of Miles’ skinny frame, and inserts him into a group of rebellious scholarship kids (at one point early in the book, Pudge himself as the narrator remarks, “The phrase booze and mischief left me worrying I’d stumbled into what my mother referred to as ‘the wrong crowd’” 20). This group includes Alaska Young, at times infuriating and frustrating, at times lovable and cuddly, always unpredictable. Miles is infatuated with the vivacious Alaska, but she is in a stable relationship with a musician from out of town. Pudge has come to Alabama looking for a “Great Perhaps,” something exciting, something beyond his less-than-exciting, rather friendless existence in Florida. For him, Alaska in all her unpredictable rebellion against society and standards represents the Great Perhaps. She is living while he merely coasting, and that I think is why he is so excited by the idea of her, apart from her apparently being a good-looking, curvy girl who wears tank tops and cutoffs and talks openly about sex and sexuality. But then in one wild night, she is no longer living, and Pudge has to decide if the Great Perhaps and he have died with her.

This book at once discusses the consequences of suicide and of drunk driving—but it is so much more than an issue book—really more a bildungsroman. The second half of the book masquerades as a mystery: what happened and why? The Colonel puts his analytical mind to work trying to unravel Alaska’s final mystery, her final act, her final rebellion. The school story form here helps too to provide a context and answers to the plot’s questions as the predominate class is a religions class where the students are encouraged to think about and write essays on the Big Questions that religions seek to answer: life, death, and our place in the universe.

The ultimate answer to suffering that Pudge finds is forgiveness—of the living and of the dead. Pudge chooses not to be held back by the past—or rather learns how to let go of the past—the very thing that I think he’s been seeking since his decision to leave Florida for Alabama and since his first cigarette. That message I can get behind—and I think most parents will find that they can too.

There is a great deal here too about the secreted world of teenagers—the one that they hide from adults, mostly represented here by the Eagle, the dean of students.

This book rarely disrespects or belittles teenagers and their small and large decisions, and I think that is part of what has made it so popular.

Other Goodreads reviewers have pointed out that Green’s characters are fairly flat and at times reliant upon stereotypes to uphold them or define them. I can definitely agree that the accents and syntactical decisions in particular were at times distracting and overblown. At times I saw Green as trying to distance his characters from their stereotypes, but more often than not—frankly—the characters did all seem a little flat and a little cartoonish.

Green works with a fairly small cast, each character standing for a group or a trope: the Eagle for adults, Alaska for the Great Perhaps, Longwell Chase for the rich Weekday Warriors who return home on the weekends to their parents…. Lara is really only present to be an attainable alternative romantic partner for Pudge.

All this said, I enjoyed the time that I spent in this book, and I tore through it— devoured it, you might say, in nine days (a short time for me).

I recognize that it definitely has some literary value, and is a worthy first novel, but I don’t think that it is Green’s best work.

****

Green, John. Looking for Alaska. New York: SPEAK-Penguin, 2005.

This review is not endorsed by John Green, SPEAK, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: An Education (507 words)

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She had only heard gunshots at a distance. Sometimes an explosion echoing through a tranquil wood, a wild fire in a distant part of the forest, the question of life or death for sport. Sometimes a sound that might have been a shot or might have been a car backfiring or might have been a transformer blowing and shutting down power to a block that wasn’t hers, something that she had chosen to believe was anything but while the question lingered. Mostly she knew the sound of gunfire from films, depictions of violence after which actors stood up, unhurt, and walked away, blank rounds and a bit of gunpowder to make a light like a firework maybe if the era or the drama called for it.

What news footage she had been forced to witness by well-meaning teachers, she had suppressed or lost to the doldrums of busywork and summers where she didn’t have to learn.

What she knew of gun violence was not firsthand. She knew people who knew people but had never known anyone. She had seen what it had done to those who knew people. She knew enough about human experience from fiction and experience to know what it did to people who knew people, even before she knew people.

She remembered a day in middle school when too many lives had stopped and the world had tilted and flung weeping students into teachers’ arms and shook out flags, when breaths were short and quick, and tumult had come crashing down like airplanes out of the sky, like a set of buildings.

That day seared.

That day years later anytime could still be conjured in stark-shadowed Baroque and flashbulb image. Images and camera footage kept resurfacing on anniversaries and in unexpected places.

That day could still cause horror and anger—anger for the hurt caused, for the hurt that could be caused again by a simple illustration, a brief reminder, for the unthinking reminder.

Then another day. More questions. A lone gunman this time. A gunman in a school. A day that had to be gotten through when others’ days had been ended too soon. Every child a reminder, every parent and child another whiplash, a ghost of a similar embrace lost that day. A tiny town struck silent while a nation, while a world turned eyes that couldn’t yesterday have found it on a map, and a president who could pronounce names like Tehran and Kabul fumbled the name in a speech in a town he would never otherwise have visited.

Now a day. Two dead. One hurt. One running. Questions. Where? Here? A clip unloaded, a clip uploaded, a clip gone viral. Everywhere. CNN? BBC? Everyone talking. What will happen? What did happen? What have you heard? What do you know?

The schools locked down all over. Grief counselors coming into schools because of two people the students never met.

Students too young to understand, and all the parents’ talking. All the news channels showing.

Are they thinking?

What do they remember?

There is an oft quoted and misquoted and misattributed quote: “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”  (Quote Investigator attributes this quote to sportscaster Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith.)  This is one of those pieces.  It poured out of me after cutting a vein, and I’ve not edited it much sense spilling it onto the page.

And then I made it the legal theft line of the week, a tricky challenge.

Trebez at Machete Diplomacy used the line to write “Shots and Seconds” and made some interesting observations about gunshots.

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “Succeed” (877 words).

C.C. at Creatures, Critters and Crawlers wrote “Reunion.”

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad wrote “Making a Name.”

And Bek at Yeah. But So What? Everybody’s Weird wrote “Robbery” (256 words).

Challenge: Legal Theft: My Goldfish Ran Away Today (153 words)

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Mommy says my goldfish ran away today. He was gone when I came back from preschool. Mommy says a goldfish circus came to the house, and they thought Freddie was the best swimmer they’d ever seen. They wanted Freddie to join their circus and give him all the food flakes he could eat. Freddie jumped into the potty to join them. Mommy kept looking at the potty when she told me. He really wanted all the food flakes he could eat, she says. And he loves swimming. He swims all the time.  He’s the best I’ve ever seen too.

Mommy may think that a goldfish circus took Freddie away, but I know she’s wrong. Goldfish don’t jump into the toilet to join the circus.

They go to visit the ocean and swim with whales!

I hope Freddie meets a nice whale.

Maybe Freddie will bring the whale back with him to visit me!

Mine was the stolen line this week.  I’ve been fiddling with the idea myself for a while.  This is the best that’s yet come out of it.

Trebez at Machete Diplomacy wrote “Mad Science,” and it is adorable and clever.  Go read it.

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “Big Girl” (823 words).  It is also adorable and clever.  I have adorable and clever friends.

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad wrote “Vanishing Trick,” a much more serious story.

Check back later for some posts by more thieves.