Friday, August 28, 2015

Young Adult Fiction: All the Rage by Courtney Summers

I didn't want to read this book. I purposefully left it off of my Goodreads lists because I was making a point to avoid it. And then, because I read This Is Not a Test and liked it more than I thought I would, I did something silly like place it on my Amazon wish list with the thought of "well, if someone else gets it for me then I'll read it." And of course, that is what happened. That is how All the Rage by Courtney Summers ended up here, on this blog. I tried to avoid it, but it ended up on my shelf anyway. Maybe I was supposed to read it, not for me, but for someone else who would avoid it, or not even know about it. Maybe they shouldn't avoid it. Maybe they need to know about it too.

The Situation: It is Romy Grey's senior year of high school and she has become a social pariah. High school is hard enough without people purposefully ignoring you, whispering about you, or taking your bra and underwear while you shower after gym class in order to display them later in some very public and very humiliating way. But that is Romy's daily reality. She was raped by Kellan Turner, the sheriff's son, but no one believes her. So she has now lost her friends, her alcoholic father walked away from her family, and she now works one town over in order to just escape what has become her life. The bright spots are her mother, and her mother's boyfriend, Todd, who they now live with. There is also Leon, the cook at the diner Romy works at. Leon has no idea what happened to Romy and what her non-work life is really like, and Romy would like to keep it that way for as long as possible. To him, she isn't that girl.

The Problem: One day an old friend from before the rape shows up at the diner and everything changes, again. There is another girl in trouble, and it may help matters if Romy were to speak up and be honest about a few things, but the last thing she wants to do is make another visit to the sheriff's office. She is also sure that, once again, no one will believe her. And while she also doesn't want more attention, it is she gets as the situation seems to spiral out of control, and she can't seem to stay out of trouble. If she stays silent, people assume she is hiding something. If she speaks out, then she is a liar. If she does nothing, the she is selfish and doesn't care. And if she tries to help, then she has some nerve and should know no one wants her around. The only thing that may save Romy is the truth of everything that happened, but it is the thing she can't bring herself to deal with.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel that deals with the always extremely sensitive and often polarizing subject of rape. Summers confronts the subject head-on and does not pull any punches. The details of how it happened are fairly explicit, and Romy is dealing with all of psychological effects of it. Also, the teenagers that she must attend high school with are absolutely relentless. No one believes that the sheriff's son raped her, so everyone, even those that were supposed to be her friends, have turned on her. They call her awful and ugly names; they pull pranks on her and then high-five each other in the hallway; they trip her during gym class and claim no fault; they take every opportunity they can to humiliate her; and they generally make her life a living and unending hell. As a result, Romy forces herself to stay silent, for the most part, but she is ultimately filled with an incredible and eventually undeniable amount of rage. She is angrier than angry. "Angry" is actually insufficient. She is livid, she is pissed, she is blind with fury. And outside of her mother and Todd, no one wants to believe she is allowed to be.

My Verdict: Like I said before, I didn't really want to read this book. I read the synopsis and knew it was something I would not be up for enduring. For one, I need little convincing that teenagers can be awful human beings, so I didn't want any help from a YA book about a rape victim that is eternally bullied. Second, this will be the fourth book in 2015 alone that I will have read that deals with some sort of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault on a teenage girl. This isn't by accident folks...people write about this stuff for a reason. With all of that being said, this a great book, although it feels weird to say that, considering the story. Don't get me wrong, it is hard to read. It helps that it is YA and therefore the pages turn at a faster rate than with a book written for adults. But there are parts of this book where you know what is coming and you dread it, but it comes anyway, and it is worse than you thought it would be. So if you don't want to read about rape and how awful teenagers can be, don't pick up this book. I'm not going to say that everyone should read this book and face the reality of sexual abuse. I'm glad I read it, but I probably would have been fine if I didn't.

Favorite Moment: I just like that Romy didn't shut herself up her in her house and shut down completely, despite there being sufficient reason for her to do so.

Favorite Character: Romy's would-be stepdad, Todd, is a good man. Romy and her mom and moved into his house, now that her alcoholic father is out of the picture. And while he is obviously concerned about Romy, he doesn't try too hard or even push too hard, somehow managing to walk the line between concerned parent and supportive friend, which allows Romy to trust him. 

Favorite Heartbreaking Quote: "Because teenage girls don't pray to God, they pray to each other. They clasp their hands over a keyboard and then they let it all out, a (stupid) girl's heart tucked into another girl's heart." 

Recommended Reading: If you enjoy this type of difficult reading, I recommend Marjorie Brody's Twisted, or even Ava Dellaira's Love Letters to the Dead. But if you want to read more from Summers, I recommend her YA zombie thriller, This Is Not a Test.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Science Fiction: I Am Radar by Reif Larson

I am always on the lookout for science fiction I can actually understand, or that I can at least somewhat enjoy reading despite my confusion. As long as the story isn't overrun by too many science-related details that are, and always will be, beyond my comprehension, chances are I'll moderately enjoy it. Of course, there is also the whole thing about likeable characters and interesting storyline, etc. The synopsis on Reif Larson's I Am Radar was interesting enough that I was willing to risk being completely lost for over 600 pages. 

The Situation: Radar Radmanovic was born black. Well, that statement may be a bit misleading, and it isn't completely true as most people would understand it. What Radar was born with is extremely dark skin. Like black. As in charcoal. Naturally, this came as a shock to his white mother, Charlene, and Serbian father, Kermin. But despite having skin as black as night, causing the hospital staff, the neighbors, and the media to question Charlene's fidelity and Kermin's chances of being the actual father, Radar is a healthy and normal baby boy. However, his skin color isn't the only strange thing to come out of his birthday. The moment he is born, the entire hospital loses power, and Charlene develops an olfactory condition that allows her to smell everything intensely, both pleasant and unpleasant. The circumstances surrounding Radar's life are bizarre enough, but little does he know that the story of his birth is simply one part of a much larger story spanning countries, families, and generations.

The Problem: Despite his auspicious beginning, Radar manages to grow up and become a decent and responsible adult. While his mother fights depression and her own feelings of intense guilt off and on over the years, Radar's father seemingly keeps his son at arm's length, secretly working on projects of his own that he won't let anyone, even his family, get close to. Only when a massive blackout occurs in Radar's part of New Jersey is he able to get even remotely close to what Kermin has been up to all of these years. Unfortunately, Kermin is nowhere to be found. And what Radar is able to find leads to more questions than answers, and the few answers he manages to get are often painful revelations. Now with the goal of finding his father, Radar embarks on an adventure that he never would have considered under normal circumstances. And even after he has decided to take it, he begins to believe his involvement to be a colossal mistake. Locating his father may be his ultimate goal, but there is so much more at stake in this strange but interwoven tale that spans history and borders.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novel that mostly takes place during modern day, but also frequently reaches into history to tell how other characters got where they are today. Starting with Radar's birth, the novel briefly goes into the histories of both Charlene and Kermin and how the two ended up together. After telling the story of his parents agreeing to try a radical experiment on him to "fix" his skin color, the story leaves Radar to talk about two Serbian brothers and their involvement in a group that Radar will find after the blackout in New Jersey. And after returning to Radar's story, the narrative leaves him once again to talk about the involvement of an heir to a prosperous rubber plantation in Cambodia. Each story somehow involves a secret society that seeks to stage strange puppet shows in troubled or war-torn locations all over the world, despite that often meaning the performance will end in a disaster with many people dead. These performances don't involve the usual sort of puppets on strings, but puppets that almost don't need to be controlled by their puppet master. Both Radar and Kermin also prove to be very good with radios, electricity, and machines in general. I could almost give this book the label of historical fiction as Larson uses real events in history, and even goes so far as to include footnotes, diagrams, figures, and in-text citations. It is a complex history that follows several characters, though mainly Radar, and shows how they all came to be a part of this strange group of performers. 

My Verdict: I am sure this book has an audience, I am just not sure who it would be. It's certainly a strange story, but not even strange just in a general science fiction way. A child born with unusually dark skin I can handle. I can also grasp onto a genius becoming obsessed with creating a puppet that doesn't need to be controlled. Fine. But I Am Radar loses me when those building the puppets insist on staging their strange performances in war-torn or disputed areas, despite the examples from history proving this to be a terrible idea. It takes "the show must go on" to an entirely different level. Despite the book's length, I can honestly say that there isn't really any point where I felt the story dragged. But there are still parts where I felt that too much history is given, especially when that history doesn't provide any answers or clarification. And the ending doesn't really help, at all. Fascinating and bizarre characters are introduced, only for them to disappear and never be heard from again. And others are given detailed histories only to be unceremoniously killed off and rarely referenced. I am certain there is something in this book that went completely over my head. Perhaps a true science fiction lover will be able to read I A m Radar and appreciate it in full.

Favorite Moment: When Charlene finally realizes that her issues with her son's skin are not only harmful, but ultimately, all about her.

Favorite Character: This story is so all over the place that I had a hard time picking a favorite. Radar seems like the obvious choice. Despite everything he has been through, and the people that raised him, he grows up to be fairly well-adjusted. 

Recommended Reading: For some reason that I can't quite put my finger on, I feel like I should recommend David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks. It could be because it also follows the life of one central figure from childhood into the adulthood, while they attempt to navigate the strange circumstances surrounding their life and also live a normal one.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Classic Fiction: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

It's almost as if I didn't take high school English. Somehow I have never read Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. It is 107 pages of easy reading, compared to most classic literature out there. I'm not sure how I missed it either, but there it is. At least I am getting to it now.

The Situation: George Milton and Lennie Small have been traveling together, trying to earn enough money to someday buy their own place, where they'll work and live off of their own land instead of being obligated to somebody else. George is small but somewhat clever, while Lennie is large and strong, but with the mind of a child. He knows he is big and strong, but doesn't have a clue as to how to control his strength. Together they move from job to job, hoping to be able to stay somewhere long enough to earn money for their own place. George has to constantly remind and tell Lennie what to do, specifically if they get into trouble. From the outside, it would look like George just bosses the big guy around, but he also keeps Lennie entertained with tales of their shared future. And rabbits. Lennie is really excited about rabbits.

The Problem: The reason why the traveling pair had to leave their last job is because of a situation with a woman in a red dress, a dress that Lennie just had to touch. And all poor Lennie knows to do is to hold onto things, especially when they struggle to get away. Even when he is attempting to be kind, his strength will still get away from him, as is evidenced by the many mice he kills simply because he loves to pet them so much. George keeps as close an eye on him as he can, and often knows when trouble is coming without Lennie having to do or say much. But while he may know how to handle Lennie, others do not. All it can take is one person looking for trouble to send George and Lennie out to look for work again.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a novella about two displaced migrant workers looking for job opportunities during the Great Depression. George and Lennie are looking to earn enough money to buy their own small piece of land and live off of it. Unfortunately, they can never stay anywhere long enough to earn what they need. It is mentioned by more than one character in the book that it isn't often that two men will travel together they way George and Lennie do. And while George will often reprimand Lennie and say he would be better off traveling around without him, he continues to watch out for him and stick up for him, while giving him specific instructions on how to handle himself in certain situations. And when George isn't either telling Lennie how to handle certain people, or talking about the future they hope to have, he is having to tell his large friends how to treat animals. Lennie, much like a child, loves animals, all animals. And he often, quite literally, loves them to death. He kills mice because he pets them to death. And when he gets a new puppy, he insists on taking it away from its mother until George instructs him to put it back. Whenever George starts talking about what they are going to do once they have enough money, Lennie's favorite part is always the part about taking care of the rabbits. More than anything, he doesn't want to mess up lest he no longer gets to take care of the rabbits. Most of the men George and Lennie now work with are decent people, but then there is Curley, the boss's son, and also Curley's wife. Curley immediately dislikes Lennie because of his size and obvious strength, while Curley's wife immediately takes a liking to pretty much all of the men, who realize she is nothing but trouble. George has to give Lennie specific instructions on how to handle these two, knowing that both of them could get his large friend in trouble.

My Verdict: I can get why every high school in America (except for mine apparently) has this book as required reading. George and Lennie are an odd pair, but they work. It would be easy to make George out to be the bully of the pair, but he does what he does for a reason. Lennie may be a grown man, but he has the mind of a child, so George treats him like one. Steinbeck is able to tell a lot of story and paint an incredible picture in very few pages, which I admire immensely. There isn't a whole lot of description to the characters beyond just what the reader needs to know to picture them, but it is all done so well and fits perfectly with the way the story is told as a whole. If you haven't read Of Mice and Men, and have an afternoon free, I recommend picking it up.

Favorite Moment: When George agrees to let old man Candy in on his future plans, despite being generally suspicious and distrusts everyone except Lennie.

Favorite Character: I will go ahead and pick George, because to take care of Lennie requires a strength and ability that I don't think I have or understand. And it isn't just that he takes care of him. It is also that he continues to travel around with him, when he could have made the decision to leave him behind at any point along the way.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. It is much longer and a little bit harder to stomach, but it is also worth it.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

I feel like my reasons for choosing the latest novel by Toni Morrison for this blog don't even need to be stated. The author is already well-known for such works as The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Song of Solomon, just to name a few. While her novels all follow the same general theme of the struggles of African-Americans, it is always interesting to see in which direction she will go. God Help the Child would prove to be yet another story by Morrison exploring the complex reality for black people in the US.

The Situation: Lula Ann Bridewell now only goes by "Bride." Despite having been born to a woman that often had a hard time even just looking at her, Bride has grown up to be successful, strong, confident, and, much to pretty much everyone's surprise, even herself, incredibly beautiful. Born with skin so dark it is described as blue-black, Bride's mother, known to her daughter as Sweetness since she could not even tolerate her dark daughter calling her "Mom," was ashamed of her daughter and could barely stand to look at her, or even touch her. Now Sweetness is incredibly proud of the daughter who grew up to use her dark skin to her advantage, proving to the world that black is indeed beautiful. Sweetness rationalized that what she did was for the best and has served her daughter well. Even though Bride hardly ever talks to her mother, Sweetness holds onto her belief that she did what she had to do for her own daughter's well-being.

The Problem: On the outside, Bride is a force. While strategically wearing all white, she struts through her life, making decisions about her make-up line and collecting sexual conquests with a confidence pretty much everyone is envious of. But all it takes is for one boyfriend to assert that she isn't the woman he wants for Bride's confidence to shatter. It also doesn't help that she is brutally rejected by someone she tried to help, someone from her past. Now Bride waivers between believing herself to be the beauty that everyone tells her she is, and questioning everything she knew about herself, and the man she loved. If that wasn't hard enough, it also seems her body is transforming her back into the little girl her mother rejected. She becomes determined to track down the man that rejected her, believing that finding him will be the solution to her problems.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel told from the point of view of several different narrators, switching between them with each chapter. Most of the book is written from the point of view of either Bride, or a third-person narrator that keeps Bride as the center focus. But there are also chapters written from the point of view of Sweetness, Bride's mother; Brooklyn, Bride's best friend and co-worker; Sofia, the woman Bride tries to help; and Booker, the man that left her. Each viewpoint shows just how little Bride knows about other people, as well as just how little they know about her and the people around them. Everyone lies to themselves in one way or another, all while thinking they have figured everyone else out. Like many of Morrison's stories, God Help the Child has moments of what I can only think to describe as magical realism. When Bride's body first starts to change, it is nothing too alarming. Only when she realized that the holes in her ears have closed up does she see cause for concern, and that isn't the biggest change she undergoes. Morrison has the ability to include the impossible in her stories and have them come off as something that would naturally happen - almost something that the reader should have expected. And when it comes to issues of race, Morrison is once again unflinching in her descriptions about how people with darker skin were/are treated. But something I didn't expect in this book is how heavily it would deal with pedophiles and children as victims. Almost every character has dealt with the issue or witnessed something, and once again, Morrison does not hold back.

My Verdict: It's short, not exactly what I would call sweet, but certainly to the point, while serving up a good story with interesting characters the entire time. Race and skin color may be at the center, but they aren't the only things this book is about. There is also guilt, envy, grief, ignorance, love, and justice. Bride is at once a protagonist you cheer for, but also one you're not sure you would like if you met her in real life. You also kind of want to be her, but at the same time, you're really glad you're not. The ability to make one character have two conflicting natures is something I hope to one day be able to accomplish as a writer. When done well, it is incredible and makes for a story like the one we have here. I don't think fans of Morrison will be at all disappointed. The novel is quite short, coming in at under 200 pages, but I still think it says everything it needs to say. Sure, some of the characters could be explored a little more, and there are a few loose ends I wouldn't have minded having more closure on. But overall, it is worth picking up and adding to any growing Morrison collection.

Favorite Moment: Although she chose the name herself, Bride realizes how silly it sounds when she introduces herself to a new stranger. 

Favorite Character: I would pick Steve and Evelyn, who rescue Bride after she has had a bad car accident. They live the opposite kind of life from her glamorous one in the city, but they're more content than she has ever been. 

Recommended Reading: I recommend either The Bluest Eye or Beloved. The Bluest Eye has that deeply sad and heartbreaking tone to it that this book only had on occasion. And Beloved contains a lot of that magical realism I mentioned earlier where the impossible takes place, but the reader is inclined to just accept it and move along with the story.