Mini-Reviews: The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson and News of the World by Paulette Jiles

They were both great!  Four stars. THE END.

Tempted as I am to stop there, I feel like I owe these books a bit more, so here I go.

15721638I mentioned the first book in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series waaaay back in 2015 in this post.  I didn’t really give it a proper review, but I did credit it with ending a mini reading slump!  I don’t know what prompted me recently to pick up the second in the series , The Madness Underneath, other than to say that I was looking for some entertainment, a lighter read that also brought some thrills.  It delivered on both counts. Paranormal YA isn’t really a genre I’ve typically read in the past, but I do enjoy this series very much.  Maureen Johnson is very funny, both on Twitter and on paper.  To catch you up, this is a series about an American teenager named Rory who, while a student at a London boarding school, almost chokes to death, and from then on has the ability to see ghosts. Oh, and there’s a Jack the Ripper copycat killer on the loose, and Rory meets a group of other young people who have similar abilities and work secretly for the British government (the Shades.)  In this installment, Rory’s parents have taken her out of school (she almost died in the whole Ripper brouhaha) but there’s another mysterious murder nearby, and her therapist inexplicably recommends that she return to school.  Rory thinks that the new killings are linked to the Ripper case, but she has to get the Shades to believe her.  There’s quite a cliff-hanger to this book, and I gather that some fans of the series didn’t like where this was leading the third book, but I found it to be compelling.  It definitely won’t be another two years before I read the third, The Shadow Cabinet!

25817493I read Paulette Jiles’s News of the World for my book group this past month.  I’m SO GLAD this one was chosen as our pick, because I probably wouldn’t have ever picked it up myself.  I only read historical fiction every now and then, and typically haven’t read much Western fiction.  But I ended up LOVING this. The writing (Laila clutches chest!) Oh my goodness, it was just elegant and moving but SO SPARE; not a word was wasted in this slim book (209 pages by my paperback edition.)  It’s a story about an older man in Reconstruction era Texas, named Captain Kidd, who goes from town to town with a set of newspapers and reads the news of the world in town halls where the illiterate and those without access to news come to hear him speak and give him their dimes.

And then he had come to think that what people needed, at bottom, as not only information but tales of the remote, the mysterious, dressed up as hard information.  And he, like a runner, immobile in his smeared printing apron bringing it to them.  Then the listeners would for a small space of time drift away into a healing place like curative waters.

In Wichita Falls, a freighter friend of his offers him a $50 gold piece to deliver a young girl to her aunt and uncle near San Antonio.  She’d been captured by the Kiowa tribe four years before (her parents were killed) and raised by them. She’d forgotten she knew any other way of life or language but theirs.  This unlikely pair travels a long and dangerous path down through Texas.  There’s an incredibly entertaining shootout scene along that way that thrilled with cinematic detail.  The two bond over the miles, and the Captain, father to two grown daughters, is revealed to have a tender heart along with his obvious intelligence and righteous conscience.  I fell in love with his character.  (In my mind I kept seeing actor Jeff Bridges playing Kidd, but I hear that Tom Hanks will play him in the forthcoming movie version.  He’s a favorite of mine so that’s okay.)  Anyway, this is just a beautifully written, compelling read about a time I really found myself wanting to know more about.  The friend who recommended it to our book group also loved Charles Portis’s True Grit.  I’ve seen that movie (probably where my imagining Jeff Bridges came in) but not read it.  I think I’m going to have to give the modern Western genre another look now.

Have you read either of these?  Have you read anything else by Paulette Jiles? I’m very curious now about her other books.  What about True Grit, the book – anyone have thoughts on that?  Are there other Western books I should take a look at?

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose.  I’ve tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged picture on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there.  I’ve always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down.

Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.

I loved The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.  This is one of those books that’s gotten a lot of “buzz,”and sometimes that makes a reader not want to pick something up. Sometimes the buzz is just too much to live up to.  I can only speak for myself when I say that, for me, it lived up to the hype.

IMG_0248I don’t typically read a lot of YA/Teen books, and I don’t think this book was really written with someone like me in mind, a 40 year-old white woman in Tennessee.  I really do think this was intended for young people, and I think that it would be particularly mind-blowing for young white people.  I know that if I’d read something like this when I was 14 or 15, it would have exploded my brain in the best of ways. That said, I think it still has much to offer us “old folks.”

A brief set-up for those who haven’t come across it:  it centers on Starr Carter, a 16 year-old African American girl living in contemporary times in a poor black neighborhood called Garden Heights.  She’s attending a predominantly white private high school called Williamson that’s 45 minutes away. Navigating relationships and friendships between the two worlds isn’t easy.  Her sense of self and how she feels she can talk and act shifts depending on where she is.  Her dad owns a store in the neighborhood, and his sense of duty to provide services and positive energy to the people in Garden Heights keeps him from moving their family away somewhere safer, despite Starr’s mother’s desire to move.  When Starr was ten years old, one of her best friends, Natasha, was killed before her eyes in a gang-related drive-by shooting.  Six years later, driving home from a party with another good childhood friend, Khalil, they get stopped by the police.

When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me.

One was the usual birds and bees…

The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me. 

Momma fussed and told Daddy I was too young for that.  He argued that I wasn’t too young to get arrested or shot.

“Starr-Starr, you do whatever they tell you to do,” he said.  “Keep your hands visible.  Don’t make any sudden moves.  Only speak when they speak to you.”

I knew it must’ve been serious.  Daddy has the biggest mouth of anybody I know, and if he said to be quiet, I needed to be quiet.

I hope somebody had the talk with Khalil.

This book is sad, no doubt, and made even more so for all the real young black men and women over the past few years that have been killed by police in the US in high-profile cases.  Starr’s beloved uncle is a police officer, so Thomas isn’t painting all the police with the same brush.  But this is definitely written from the perspective of a scared, hurting young black woman, filled with sadness and rage at the horror that’s happened right in front of her eyes.  It’s about a young women finding her voice, finding out who her friends really are, realizing just how much her family loves and supports her.  We go on an emotional journey with Starr, navigating her two worlds and trying to find a way to bring them together, while also trying to stay true to the memory of her childhood friend and the fight for justice.

What I appreciated most about the book was Starr’s family.  Her mom, dad, and brothers felt so real to me; the dialogue rang true, the references to hip-hop, both current and “old” (Tupac) placed this story in a recognizable cultural area for me, a hip-hop fan, even if I am the age of her parents!  Her mom and dad in particular are well-drawn, showing fierce love and protectiveness for their kids and a nuanced, realistic relationship with one another.  In reading about the warring gang members of Garden Heights I also felt like I got an education of sorts in the kinds of situations that might lead a young person to join a gang and maybe sell drugs, something that I think a lot of us white people who haven’t been in that situation would question.  Thomas really made me empathize with the lack of family support and lack of opportunities to get out of a hopeless situation by other methods.  I know it’s not her job, nor the job of any other black author to educate white people like me, but I do feel like my mind and my heart was opened more to something that I previously thought I already knew something about.

I do highly recommend this novel even if you don’t normally read YA, because I think that it’s among the best YA I’ve read.  It’s moving, compelling, thought-provoking.  There’s a vibrant momentum carrying the narrative forward, and even though it’s got some terribly sad scenes, there are moments of humor sprinkled throughout.  (One of my favorite scenes was when Starr’s dad explains his theory about Harry Potter being about gangs!  It’s classic.)  I’m excited to read anything Angie Thomas comes up with next.  Her refreshing, powerful voice is just the kind of voice we need more of in fiction, for readers of all ages.

 

R.I.P. XII (Readers Imbibing Peril XII)

ripxii800I was excited to see the sign-up announcements for this year’s R.I.P Challenge, hosted by Andi at Estella’s Revenge and Heather at My Capricious Life.  I participated for the first time last year and really enjoyed it.  It’s a very low-stakes, easy-going reading challenge, which I’ve discovered is the best kind for me to try!  There are multiple levels of involvement to choose from, with the only “requirements” being “have fun reading and share that fun with others.”

What is R.I.P.?  Basically it’s reading (or watching – there’s a movie/television option) material suited to the autumn/Halloween season.  Mysteries, thrillers, Gothic, paranormal, creepy, ghostly, weird… there are many different directions this can go!  Last year I read two books:  Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial and Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is For Witching.  Both were terrific!

517mee7CTTL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_I’m again choosing the “Peril The Second” option, which means reading two books which fit the style.  I’m going full-on Gothic this year. My first was a no-brainer, a classic book I’ve been meaning to read FOREVAH… Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.  It’s one of those inexplicable gaps in my reading and I’m going to finally fill it!  My second choice was inspired by a post by the lovely and hilarious Valancy at Blue Castle Considerations.  She recently wrote about a Barbara Michaels book, The Master of Black Tower, and it reminded me how much I used to enjoy reading her in high school.  So I’ve decided to pick Be Buried In The Rain, which sounds suitably Gothic and sinister.  It’s quite possible I’ve read this one in high school already, but I’ve slept since then, you know, so it’ll be like brand-new to me!

140455I’ve just got to read and review these titles before October 31.  Are you participating in this year’s R.I.P. Challenge?  Have you read any of my previous picks or my choices for this year?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

 

#20BooksofSummer Wrap-Up

Well, since September is nearly halfway finished, it’s high time I shared a wrap-up of my 20 Books of Summer experience!  In my second year of participating in this reading challenge, hosted by the lovely Cathy at 746 Books, I stretched my wings a bit and tried to read 20 books instead of last year’s 10.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I thought.  Well, I don’t regret it, but I failed to read all 20 titles.  Despite swapping out several titles (to include book group picks and Anne of Green Gables Readalong that I’d forgotten) I still couldn’t stick to the list, and ended up with 14 books.

I’m not discouraged, though!  Being a staunch mood reader, I pretty much knew sticking to a list was impossible.  I knew the number of books would be a stretch too, since I do watch some television and have a job and a kid and sometimes I want to do yoga at night and just WHEN am I supposed to write these blog posts?!?  So I think I did pretty well considering.  I reviewed all 14, which I think deserves a gold star, or at least an extra piece of chocolate!  🙂

Here’s what I DIDN’T get to from my list (Note:  I did read Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, which was AMAZING, but I didn’t finish it before the deadline of Sept. 3, and I still have to write my review…)

Books I didn't get to from 20 Books of summer

Expect a review of The Hate U Give soon!  (OMG I loved that book!)

I still plan on reading these.  I own five of them (the only one I’ll be borrowing from the library is The Cutting Season.)

So how did you do with 20 Books of Summer?  Is it challenging (or nearly impossible) for you to stick to a reading list, even one you make up yourself? Or do you do well with that kind of structure?  Will you participate in 20 Books of Summer next year?  Have you read any of the books from my list that I didn’t get to?  I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.

 

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

I LOVED The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit.  I finished it in two days and am pretty sure that if I hadn’t had to put it down I could have read it in one sitting.  It was totally absorbing and compelling, and Michael Finkel has written a fascinating, true account with a high level of compassion and empathy.  I often bemoan how nonfiction takes me longer to read than fiction, but this is one book that I absolutely inhaled.

30687200._UY400_SS400_You might be familiar with the book’s subject, Christopher Knight, the North Pond Hermit, who lived in the woods, stole items from cabins and eluded capture for over 25 years in Maine.  I hadn’t heard of this story before. Finkel begins the book from Knight’s perspective, as he makes a run in the dead of night to steal food from a summer camp for disabled people.  It details the ways he avoids leaving footprints or breaking underbrush, hopscotching through the woods with catlike agility, his route honed over many years. The second chapter is from the perspective of the Maine game warden who has been pursuing Knight, and who has booby-trapped the camp’s kitchen.  The third is from the perspective of a state trooper who arrests and questions him.  It’s a great entry into the story, putting us right in the action and letting us know about all the people who have been trying to catch Knight all these years.  Knight himself has been unaware of all the attention directed at him.  When captured he wasn’t quite sure what year it was. When asked how long he’d been living in the woods, he told them since the year of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (1986.)

Finkel reads about Knight’s story in the newspaper and feels instantly drawn to him.  He writes Knight a letter including a story he’d written in National Geographic about a remote hunter-gather tribe in East Africa and mentioing that they share a love of literature.  To his surprise, Knight writes back.  They began a quasi-correspondence, but Knight always held back somewhat. After being alone in nature all those years, the time in jail was wearing away at his nerves.  His mental state deteriorating, he abruptly quit writing, so Finkel decided to go visit him in jail in Maine.

Through a series of visits with Knight, Finkel discovers how he survived brutal Maine winters with no heat source (fires would attract attention, obviously.)  Knight talks about how and why he stole the items from cabins all those years ( food, batteries, clothing, camping gear, nothing too valuable or personal.)  The details of survival were endlessly fascinating to me.  For instance, Knight recycled the magazine he stole and used them as subflooring for his living area, “creating a platform that was perfectly level and also permitted decent drainage of rainwater.”  He lived so close to others that he couldn’t even sneeze aloud!  (Turns out that dense foliage and huge outcroppings of boulders helped protect his tent from discovery.)

Besides being interested in the mechanics of how someone survives alone in the woods all that time, I was drawn to what it must have felt like, the silence and stillness that Knight experienced.  Finkel does a good job portraying this, sharing his experience of camping overnight at the spot that Knight called home.  He talks about the reading material Knight stole, how he stole portable radios and even had a small black and white television for a time, rigged up with car batteries and an antenna hidden in the trees.  But what he did most of the time wasn’t listening to the radio or reading.

Mostly what he did was nothing.  He sat on his bucket or on a lawn chair in quiet contemplation.  There was no chanting, no mantra, no lotus position. “Daydreaming,” he termed it.  Meditation.  Thinking about things. Thinking about whatever I wanted to think about.”  

He was never once bored.  He wasn’t sure, he said, that he even understood the concept of boredom.  It applied only to people who felt they had to be doing something all the time, which from what he’d observed was most people.

Finkel weaves some historical accounts of hermits throughout the book, but Knight is the real draw here.  What makes a 20 year old with no criminal record or known mental problems just drop out of society entirely?  Why did his family not report him missing? How does he reconcile all the things he stole from people over the years, which includes their sense of personal safety?  How does someone who’s been in the woods all that time reenter society?  Could we learn something from Knight, and how do we do so without romanticizing his criminal behavior?

Finkel-SDN-032417-1-1
A picture of Knight’s camp after his arrest.

If you couldn’t tell, I just enjoyed the heck out of this book.  As someone who reads disproportionately more fiction, I can say that this felt like reading a really good novel – it was that immersive and compelling.  I envied Knight somewhat.  I don’t want to do what he did – I love my family and hot, running water too much for that – but I envy the experience of nature and quiet that he experienced.

The dividing line between himself and the forest, Knight said, seemed to dissolve.  His isolation felt more like a communion.  “My desires dropped away.  I didn’t long for anything.  I didn’t even have a name.  To put it romantically, I was completely free.”

If you’re wanting a quick nonfiction book for a change of pace, pick this up! Five enthusiastic stars.

 

 

 

Apex Hides The Hurt by Colson Whitehead (#20BooksofSummer 14)

Colson Whitehead intrigues me.  I’ve now read five of his books (I just have Zone One and his two nonfiction works, The Noble Hustle and The Colossus of New York, still to read.)  I read my first Whitehead novel, John Henry Days, somewhere back around 2001 or 2002, which feels like a million years ago.  I remember loving it and feeling moved by it, although the rest of the details are kinda fuzzy. (I really want to reread it.)  Whitehead’s writing is so smart, so cerebral and insightful and often wryly funny.  He fearlessly mashes up genres and challenges me, and I can’t stop wanting to read his work.

51qgfytS15L._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_Apex Hides the Hurt is a quirky little book (212 pages) that felt a lot longer, unfortunately.  Our nameless protagonist is a “nomenclature consultant” (irony!) who is hired to help figure out a new name for the town of Winthrop.  The three members of the city council are all pulling him in different directions.  The mayor, Regina Goode, is descended from the original black settlers of the town, who christened it Freedom.  Lucky Aberdeen, software CEO, wants to rebrand it New Prospera and bring in new people and new jobs.  And town eccentric, Albie Winthrop, is descended from the original Winthrop (a barbed-wire manufacturer) who renamed the town after himself.

Our hero is holed up in the Hotel Winthrop over a few days, drinking, talking to locals and conference goers, musing over his recent events in his life which have left him physically injured and jobless.  He engages in a rather funny war with the hotel’s cleaning woman over the state of his room.  We find out that, in his old job as a marketing wunderkind, he came up with the name for a brand of adhesive bandages that were made in various shades of brown and black, to match various ethnicities, called Apex.  We later find out how an Apex bandage figures into his injury and his breakdown.

Isn’t it great when you’re a kid and the whole world is full of anonymous things?  He coughed into his sleeve.  Everything is bright and mysterious until you know what it is called and then all the light goes out of it.  All those flying gliding things are just birds.  And etc.  Once we knew the name of it, how could we ever come to love it?  He told himself: What he had given to all those things had been the right name, but never the true name.  For things had true natures, and they hid behind false names, beneath the skin we gave them.

This is an interesting book filled with clever observations, dazzling sentences, and quirky conversations.  But it never all came together for me.  I appreciated it.  I’m glad I read it, as I want to read everything Colson Whitehead writes.  But my predominant feeling upon finishing it was one of relief.  2.5 stars, rounded up to three.

Anne of Windy Poplars by L.M. Montgomery #AnneReadalong2017

Note: Jane at Greenish Bookshelf and Jackie at Death By Tsundoku are co-hosting an Anne of Green Gables series readalong for the remainder of the year.  Check out their blogs for more info on how to join the fun!

“Gilbert darling, don’t let’s ever be afraid of things.  It’s such dreadful slavery.  Let’s be daring and adventurous and expectant.  Let’s dance to meet life and all it can bring to us, even if it brings scads of trouble and typhoid and twins!”

68f9201c86e4a036de539fc195ea8766--anne-of-windy-poplars-large-housesAh, the power of low expectations!  I’d been warned by Melanie that the even-numbered books in this series weren’t as good as the odd ones.  Plus, my own experience with the second book made me set my bar pretty low for Anne of Windy Poplars.  How nice to be surprised!  I ended up really enjoying this and felt almost sad when I finished it.

Windy Poplars introduces a new kind of structure to the series, with many of the chapters in the form of letters from Anne to her beloved Gilbert Blythe.  I confess that when I read the first chapter I thought, “Dude, this chapter is too long to be an actual letter to someone!”  But then I just went with it and forgot about my minor quibble.  Anne tells Gilbert early on that he’ll only get a romantic letter from her when she has exactly the right kind of pen.  I am most grateful that we are spared the lovey-dovey stuff between Anne and Gilbert.  Call me a crank, go ahead!  This book is about Anne and her last years of being an independent,  single young lady. I can read all about shmoopy-ness in the next book (or so I hear!)

I didn’t know if I could take all the ridiculous Pringle business at first.  In fact, as I took notes during my reading I labeled two people “pills” and two others names that I won’t print here out of decency.  🙂  But Anne worked her innumerable charms (and wasn’t above a little innocent suggested blackmail) and turned around all the unfriendly and hostile Pringles and others in Summerside.  Two of my favorite victories of Anne’s were when she sat with the wheelchair-bound Mrs. Gibson, allowing Pauline to go to her friend’s wedding and enjoy a glorious day of freedom, and the matchmaking of Nora and Jim Wilcox.

I actually shed some tears when I read about poor Teddy Armstrong.  I could tear up just thinking about it now, his poor father all alone without a picture of his beloved little boy.  Finding his nephew Lewis brought some measure of peace but still it was a very sad event, the saddest so far in the series.

AnneOfWindyPoplarsI very much enjoyed Anne’s hosts, Aunt Chatty and Aunt Kate, and their no-nonsense housekeeper Rebecca Dew.  Rebecca’s funniest moment was when she grumbled, “Do you s’pose they’ll ask us at the judgement day how many petticoats we’ve got on?” and then went into the kitchen before anyone could comment.

I was left with a sense of melancholy when I finished the book, because I realized that this was the last installment before Anne and Gilbert get married.  Don’t get me wrong, I am all for their marriage.  It’s just that Anne is such an independent, strong, resourceful young woman in a time when most young women didn’t dare have dreams or independent lives beyond the hope of marriage and children.  Maybe I’m anxious because I’ve never read the series before and I just don’t know that Anne will retain her strong nature and not just become a mother to little “Davy and Dora”-type kids.  I want Anne to continue to solve problems and bring people together and charm people into doing what she wants!  Maybe those of you who have read this series before can soothe my fears on that score.

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised by Windy Poplars and would definitely consider reading it again someday. The epistolary nature grew on me, as did Anne’s (sometimes unlikely) propensity for matchmaking and solving people’s problems.  Four stars.

(This is book #13 of #20BooksofSummer.)