Bird Box – Josh Malerman

birdboxIt seemed like everyone was talking about Josh Malerman’s debut novel, Bird Box, but it was still a surprise when it was chosen as our April read for book club. In the 15 years we’ve been together we’ve never read anything even resembling a horror story. I was really looking forward to this one because I love a scary book.

Malorie lives alone in a house in a Detroit suburb with two children she calls Boy and Girl. The house used to be nice but now she notices the “rusted utensils and cracked dishes. The cardboard box used as a garbage can. The chairs, some held together by twine.” Clearly, it’s not situation normal and Malorie’s musings allude to “older stains,”  for which there are “no chemicals in the house to help clean.”

Malerman doesn’t waste any time with preamble. That’s probably a good thing because Bird Box relies on a heavy dose of the unknown to make it tick. Something has happened to the world. The “Internet has blown up with a story people are calling ‘the Russia Report.'” People are behaving monstrously, attacking strangers and family members in gruesome ways (a mother buries her children alive) before ending their own lives. It’s a “the whole world’s going crazy” scenario, but it spreads from Russia to North America (and who knows where else) like wildfire. The only way to prevent doing harm to others and yourself is to prevent yourself from seeing whatever is out there. People hole up in their houses, windows covered, and if they must venture outside, they wear a blindfold.

Bird Box bounces between Malorie’s perilous journey down the river in a boat (she’s heard that there is a safe community and after four years alone, she longs for something more for herself and her children who she laments “have never seen the sky. Have never looked out a window.” ) and her time in the house with a group of strangers she discovered through an advertisement in the paper.

I can’t say I was fussy about the beginning or the ending of Bird Box, but I was seriously creeped out in the middle. There’s a scene when members of the house have to go out into the backyard to get water from the well. They have to be blindfolded, of course, and a rope is tied around their waist. The person whose job it is to go to the well must make the journey three times. On this occasion, it’s Felix’s turn. On the third and final trip from the house to the well he hears a sound.

But now he can tell where it is coming from.

It is coming from inside the well.

He releases the crank and steps back. The bucket falls, crashing against the stone, before splashing below.

Something moved. Something moved in the water.

It’s moments like these when Bird Box is at its best. Like Malerman’s characters, we are blind and we realize that the scariest thing in the world is what we can’t see.

 

 

 

Give a Boy a Gun – Todd Strasser

gun

Todd Strasser’s topical novel Give a Boy a Gun  tackles a difficult and potentially divisive topic with a great deal of care and concern for all parties involved. As both a mother and a teacher, I found the book horrifying and troubling. Canada doesn’t have a gun culture per se. Sure, we own guns, but rifles for hunting mostly. In fact, “there are just two categories of individuals who are allowed an authorization to carry [handguns]: those who require one because of their occupations and those who need one for the “protection of life.” They need to get an authorization from the chief firearms officer for their province or territory. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/who-may-carry-handguns-in-canada-1.1135084)

Strasser’s story is framed as an investigation by Journalism student, Denise Shipley. She hears about the death of Gary Searle in the gymnasium of Middletown High, her alma mater, and she heads home to investigate. She says, “I spoke to everyone who would speak to me. In addition I studied everything I could find on the many similar incidents that occurred in other schools around our country in the past thirty years.” The story of Middletown is fiction, but the notes found at the bottom of many of the pages, are not. The facts and figures lend an air of authenticity to the story Denise discovers about Gary.

As classmates, teachers, parents and bystanders weigh in, a horrible picture begins to emerge of a student who is bullied and who finds a friend in another outsider, Brendan Lawlor. Brendan’s best friend Brett describes him as “smart and funny and a pretty good athlete.” While Brendan lived in Springfield he was ” a really cool kid. Popular too.” But things change when he moves with his parents to Middletown and he starts high school.

I am not so naïve as to think that there isn’t a pecking order in high school. I would like to believe that at the high school where I teach (on the East coast of Canada) it is not quite so pronounced as the school Brendan and Gary attend. There, they are openly picked on and the teachers and administration ignore it.

Brendan and Gary got picked on. That’s a fact. We all did. Little guys; fat guys; skinny, gangly, zit-riddled guys like me. Anyone who wasn’t big and strong and on a team got it. You’d even see big guys on the football team push around some of the smaller players. Middletown High is big and crowded, and you’ve got ten dillion kids in the hall at once. Maybe if it’s an all-out, knock-down-drag-out fight, some teacher will notice and try to stop it. But if it’s just some big jerk shoving you into a locker, who’s gonna see?

I believe we work very hard (with more success than failure) to cultivate an atmosphere of acceptance here, but it doesn’t take very long for the reader to see how the daily abuse that comes from being perceived as “different” affects Brendan and Gary. The novel clips along to its inevitable conclusion and although it makes for grim reading, I also think it’s an important topic and one that would certainly generate lively discussion.

Spring…has sprung a leak in my basement

I feel as though I have been hibernating for ages…but the days are getting longer and brighter and although there are still mounds of dirty snow everywhere, I am feeling optimistic about – well – things in general. Except my basement. It’s full of water. I am not handy, so I am dealing with the water by ignoring it. I rescued Lily’s litter box and shut the door on the things that are floating down there. (Did anyone else hear Pennywise’s voice just now?)

The water is a recent thing. I have also been distracted by school-related activities. I am the faculty advisor for the yearbook, and while we have finally put the book to bed, for many, many days I was scrambling (along with my very capable student editors) to get that puppy done.

In a perfect-storm sort of way, I was also putting together the fourth edition of The Write Stuff magazine, a literary arts magazine which debuts on April 29th at the fifth annual Write Stuff writers’ workshop. This is a day I very much look forward to attending. Over one hundred students from four area high school will gather at the Saint John Arts Centre to work with a variety of writing mentors. It’s a fabulous day. You can read more about it at our blog, The Write Stuff.

Of course, I am still reading, but perhaps not as diligently as I am re-watching Felicity. After just one episode, I was immediately sucked back into that whole Ben-Noel-Felicity triangle. (I am Team Ben all the way!) I have to step away from the DVDs though so I can finish a pile of books that I have started…but not quite finished…including:

birdbox Bird Box – Josh Malerman

This is actually my next book club read and I am almost done. I have been wanting to read this book for a while and was surprised when it was chosen for my book club since we’ve never read anything like it before. We have a rule in our group – we’re not allowed to talk about the book before the meeting, so I can’t reveal any of my thoughts at this time.

pushing

Pushing the Limits – Katie McGarry

I am about half-way through this hefty YA novel featuring a good girl (with dark, complicated past) and a bad boy (with dark, complicated past) who are thrown together to study but who have a crazy-hot attraction to each other. I’ll finish it, but I’m not loving it.

gun

Give a Boy a Gun – Todd Strasser

I am almost done this book, which I’ve ben reading in school and which is a compelling and bleak look at the gun culture, bullying and school shootings in the United States.

silentwife

The Silent Wife – A.A.A. Harrison

I probably only read about twenty pages of this before I got side-tracked by life. I’ll have to restart this book, I think.

grief girl

Grief Girl – Erin Vincent

I think this book is bound for my Book Graveyard, actually. It’s the true story of an Australian girl who suffers a horrible loss when her parents are in a traffic accident. Not grooving to the writing, though.

I don’t normally have more than a couple books on the go at one time, one at home and one at school. That I have so many started and unfinished is an indication of how scattered my life has been of late. What are you reading this spring?

Off the Shelf – March 30

Listen here.

Enough with the sequels already.

So I have decided that I have a pet peeve: sequels. It seems like more and more young adult novels have sequels or are part of a trilogy and it irritates me…and I can’t quite figure out why.

My most recent experience is with a book that I started reading last week called Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne. It was actually a pretty decent book, if you are into post-apocalyptic fiction – which I am not, btw. So, it’s the story of brothers Dean, who is 16, and Alex, who is 13, and they live in a town called Monument which is about 50 miles outside of Denver. On their way to school, there’s a freak hail storm – only the hail is like pieces of rock. They manage to take refuge in a huge Greenway Superstore and their bus driver tells them to stay put until she can bring back help. There are 14 kids all together – thus the name of the book Monument 14 – ranging in age from 5 – 18. Turns out, the hail storm is actually a byproduct of a volcano, which set off a megatsunami, which caused chemicals to be released from a nearby government facility. Total page turner. In fact I had so much fun reading it, I went out and bought the sequel, Monument 14: Sky on Fire before I was even done the first book. The second book…same as the first, really. Teens in peril because the world isn’t safe anymore. Again, I had fun reading it because, of course, now I am invested in the characters. I want to see how they survive, if they have any chance of being reunited with their parents. But when I got to the end of this book I felt…less excited and more sort of annoyed. The third book is called Monument 14: Savage Drift and I guess I will purchase it eventually, but I am happy to leave Monument behind.

So, this was the impetus for me to think about sequels and why there seems to be so many of them in YA fiction, particularly speculative fiction. I don’t think we can totally blame Suzanne Collins for the recent popularity of trilogies, but here’s where I make a confession. I loved The Hunger Games, but I haven’t read either Catching Fire or Mocking Jay. I did a little digging, and it seems that I am not the only person who is suffering from trilogy or sequel fatigue – okay, not an actual condition, but lots of other avid readers feel the same way I do about trilogies.

In 2013, Publisher’s Weekly was already talking about trilogy fatigue. I think at one time in the not too distant past it was easier to get a book deal if you were selling a trilogy, but publishers aren’t looking for dystopian fiction as much as they are looking for realistic fiction these days…so trilogies, hopefully, will be on the decline. Thank God – because, honestly I can’t keep up.

That said, as a person who spends a good portion of her time trying to encourage students to read – a series isn’t a bad thing to hook a kid. If you can get them to invest in one book, if they like it – then there’s a good chance they’ll stick with the series.

On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for books that just finish – even if it seems like there might be the potential for more, like Holly Black’s fabulous vampire novel The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, which, sure – she could have carried on. Or Courtney Summers’ This is Not a Test, which I talked about a few weeks ago – totally left itself open to a sequel (and there is an e-sequel which I will never read because the ending of that book was perfect…even though I will have to imagine what happens to those heartbreaking characters)

Still, if series are your thing, here are some worth checking out:

Top of my list Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series, three books: The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men. I’ve talked about these books before. I recommend them all the time in my classroom and I’ve had very few complaints.

Ilsa J. Bick’s Ashes series: Ashes, Shadows and Monsters (I’ve only read the first book – see what I mean, I can’t keep up) but students have been regularly checking this series out.

Kelly Creagh’s Nevermore series: Nevermore, Enshadowed and a third book which hasn’t come out yet, I think it’s called Oblivion.

Simone Elkeles’ Perfect Chemistry, not really a series but three different novels about three brothers: Perfect Chemistry, Rules of Attraction, Chain Reaction

Monument 14: Sky on Fire – Emmy Laybourne

monumentskyOkay, Ms. Laybourne, you should totally take it as a compliment that I bought the second book in your Monument 14 series before I had even finished the first book. And then, without delay, I read the second book. Geesh, I haven’t even read Catching Fire yet. I should also point out that I don’t traditionally like post apocalyptic  fiction and sequels almost always irritate me. (Patrick Ness, you are totally excluded from this; you know how much I loved The Knife of Never Letting Go and the other books in the Chaos Walking trilogy.)

That said, I read Monument 14  in one breathless gulp and I read Sky on Fire just as quickly. I mean, come on, I couldn’t NOT find out what happened. But it’s going to be difficult to talk about any of it because – hello, spoilers.

Let’s just say this.

Dean goes from zero (he’s not really a zero, he just doesn’t have any confidence) to hero. His little brother, Alex, continues to act far older than his years. Niko is braver than any sixteen-year-old should have to be. Astrid turns out to be a lot more than a pretty face.  Oh, yeah, and the world has gone to hell in a hand basket.

The world outside the Greenway proves to be a lot more dangerous than any of the kids imagined and their mettle is tested on more than one occasion. Often the dangers aren’t environmental and there are plenty of creepy encounters with people who prove to be willing to kill to get what they want.

Kids in peril. A toxic wasteland. Crazy people on the loose. What’s not to love? And because Laybourne wisely decides to leave the confines of the Greenway, the reader gets to follow one group of kids as they try to make their way to the Denver Airport (and potential help) and one group who decides to stay in the superstore (and hope help finds them). It’s all pretty exciting stuff.

Okay, but then….the ending. (Which is not an ending because there’s a third book, Savage Drift) Can’t say I was a fan for a whole variety of reasons. Still, my issues are minor and even though I wasn’t as in love with Sky on Fire, I am totally in love with these kids and I will no doubt be joining them on the next leg of their journey.

Monument 14 – Emmy Laybourne

monumentEmmy Laybourne doesn’t waste any time dumping her characters (or the reader) into the middle of it in her post-apocalyptic YA novel, Monument 14. Sixteen-year-old Dean and his thirteen-year-old brother, Alex are going to miss their respective school buses and they’re so frantic not to be late, they don’t even bother  to “stop and hug [their mother] and tell her [they] love her.” Of course, neither of them realizes that it might be the last time they will ever see their mother.

Dean’s ride to school is pretty much the same every day. He hopes that Jake, the high school football captain, and Braydon, the school bully, won’t notice him and he hopes, Astrid, Jake’s girlfriend, champion diver, scornful goddess, and girl of Dean’s dreams, will.  As he slinks down in his seat, Dean tunes into his minitab (I’m thinking like an iPod shuffle) and tries to make himself as inconspicuous as possible.

That’s when things go from the ordinary to the extraordinary. It starts to hail. Hard.

…suddenly the roof of the bus started denting – BAM, BAM, BAM – and a cobweb crack spread over the windshield. …Hail in all different sizes from little to that-can’t-be-hail was pelting the street.

Dean’s bus ends up on its side. He can see that his brother’s bus is still going and in fact the driver, Mrs. Woolly, has smashed right through the entrance of Greenway, a huge superstore. Dean is relieved that his brother is safe, but he’s also aware that things aren’t so good on his bus. His driver, Mr. Reed, “was pinned behind the wheel and blood was spilling out of his head like milk out of a carton.”

The students on Dean’s bus make it into the Greenway. In total, there are fourteen students who take shelter there, some as young as five. Mrs. Wooly sets out to find help, leaving the kids to fend for themselves, which they do by barricading themselves into the superstore.

At first it seems like fun. Astrid used to work in the superstore’s pizza place and she knows how to use the equipment. The kids can have any flavor of slushie they want. Then they watch the news. Seems like the hailstorm in Monument, Colorado is actually just a byproduct of a much more serious natural event. And to make matters worse, that event had caused a problem at the nearby NORAD facility which has leaked toxic chemical warfare compounds into the atmosphere. Scary things can happen if you breathe in the air.

Monument 14 steams along without wasting too much time. I don’t mean to imply that you don’t get to know or care for the characters, you do, but Laybourne doesn’t let the prose slow down the plot. This novel is driven by the kids’ and their need to survive. They’ve got it slightly easier than most, as they have supplies at their disposal – but they are also just kids. They are cut off from the outside world with no real idea what is going on or what has happened to their parents.

I couldn’t put the book down and I started the sequel, Monument 14: Sky on Fire  this morning.

The Watcher – James Howe

watcherThe Watcher was published in 1999 to much critical acclaim. James Howe is the well-known author of the over 90 juvenile and YA books including Bunnicula and The Misfits series. ( I read Totally Joe and was a big fan.)

There are three main characters in The Watcher: Chris, the golden-boy lifeguard, Evan, the fourteen-year-old on vacation with his younger sister and parents, and the girl who sits at the top of the steps leading down to the beach, watching.

The truth is, though, that they are all watching each other. For example, Chris notes that “he didn’t know how he knew she was watching only him and  not them. He could just feel it.” She’s watching him; he’s watching her.  Evan thought Chris was “the coolest guy on the beach” and secretly wished he could be just like him. The girl watched the families, “not pieces of families with only a mother or a nanny, but what she thought of as complete families with two parents and at least two children, preferably a girl and a boy.”

All three of these characters are on Fire Island, a popular beach resort near New York City. There is no reason to think they will ever cross paths, but they eventually do.

Howe is a straightforward wordsmith, and he creates compelling back stories for Chris and Evan. We know that Chris is at a crossroads, unsure of what to do now that he has graduated from high school. He feels the weight of his parents’ expectations, although we don’t understand exactly how much pressure he feels until much later in the book. As for Evan, he adores his little sister Callie and is doing his best to be a good big brother because he senses that there are things going on behind the scenes which might spell the end of his happy family.

As for the girl, we know nothing at all about her except that as she sits on the steps surveying the beach she is imagining a much different life for herself, one where she is a princess who has been separated from her true family.

I read The Watcher in one sitting. I can only imagine that when it was first published it would have caused quite a sensation. It’s easy to see why. Each of these characters is called upon to do something brave and Howe handles their stories without sensationalism or preaching. Young readers would certainly recognize themselves in these pages.

The Gargoyle – Andrew Davidson

gargoyleI bought my copy of Andrew Davidson’s book, The Gargoyle when it was first published in 2008. I was working at Indigo at the time and this book had a lot of buzz. It actually sounded like a book I would be interested in, too – the story of lovers separated by hundreds of years. I started reading and about fifty pages in I just put the book down and never picked it up again…until last month when it was chosen for my book club.

We’ve all had the experience, I’m sure. A book doesn’t appeal to you, but a few weeks/months/years later you dive in again only to be swept away. Yeah, not so much. The impetus for finishing this book was definitely because it was a book club selection and as I said when we met a few nights ago, I can’t really decide what it was about the book that just didn’t work for me, but the sum of its parts just didn’t add up somehow.

The unnamed narrator is driving on a twisty mountain road, a bottle of bourbon wedged between his legs, when he loses control of the car, smashes through a guard rail and the car lands on its roof at the bottom of a steep embankment.

“A car crash seems to take forever, and there is always a moment in which you believe that you can correct the error,” our narrator thinks as he flies, weightless, through the air. He does survive, but he and his life are changed forever.

Our narrator is burned so badly that he “plumped up like a freshly roasted wiener, [his] skin crackling to accommodate the expanding meat.”  What follows is a graphic description of his burn injuries, perhaps too much information for the squeamish. I read a lot of horror/serial killer fiction, but even I found the catalogue of his injuries TMI at times. There’s a reason why he’s burned, though, and I get that.

Prior to his injury our narrator was a porn star. Yep – you read that right. By the time he graduated from high school, he had two skills: smoking drugs  and screwing his counselor. He didn’t figure he could make any money smoking dope, but he discovered he could earn some cash posing naked and “from there it was a short jump to $150 for photos involving sexual activity and – since you’re already for posing for stills, anyway- it makes a lot of sense to double or triple your income by acting in videos.”  Is this guy a likable character? Not particularly.

While recovering in the hospital, our narrator is visited by Marianne Engel who tells him that this is the third time he’s been burned. Thus begins their strange relationship. She visits him the hospital and tells him stories of lovers who have made great sacrifices for each other while also revealing to him, bit by bit,  how they first met – seven hundred years ago when she was a nun and he was a mercenary.

There’s a lot going on in Davidson’s book – perhaps too much. Whether you believe in Marianne’s tale or not, the book is overstuffed and could do with, I think, some judicious editing. I am all about  love that crosses time and space, but I just didn’t believe it here.

Leftovers – Laura Wiess

leftovers-coverBy the time you hit fifteen, there are certain survival lessons you’d better have learned.

That’s the world-weary voice of Blair Brost. She’s one of the two teenage narrators of Laura Wiess’s compelling YA novel, Leftovers. Blair’s co-narrator is Ardith. Although they are fifteen when they begin to tell their story, Ardith says they must “go back to eighth grade, which is when it all began.”

Blair is an only child. Her parents are lawyers; her mother is particularly ambitious and when she makes partner “she decides it’s time to buy  one of the big new, McMansions across town.” Blair isn’t interested in moving. She also doesn’t understand why her dog, Wendy, isn’t allowed to come. The dog is old and incontinent and Mrs. Brost says they’ve found her a new home, which isn’t exactly true.

Ardith lives with her alcoholic parents and older brother, a good-looking, charming snake.

You call your parents Connie and Gil, because they hate the heavy tags of Mom and Dad, and buy baggy, boring clothing so your mother won’t borrow them. Your hair is short because the guys like it long…

Blair and Ardith are trying to navigate the slippery terrain between childhood and adulthood and they don’t really have any positive role models. In fact, the only adult who takes any real interest in them is Officer Dave Finderne, a cop who finds them wandering home after a night at the pool.

Leftovers has elements of suspense. There are questions that need to be answered and readers will turn the pages quickly to find them. But this novel also cracks open the lives of adolescent girls, where the only way to survive is to know the rules:

Never bow before your tormentors.

Never let them know you’re vulnerable, especially when you are.

Never trust someone else to protect you, and never forget that every choice you make is on you.

Ardith and Blair are compelling narrators and their story is both heart-breaking and authentic. As both a mom and a high school teacher, I found Leftovers difficult to read (I just wanted to bring these girls home with me), but I think it has important things to say and it says them beautifully.

Highly recommended.

Help For The Haunted – John Searles

helpforthehauntedIn some ways, John Searles reminds me of Thomas H. Cook, an American mystery writer I greatly admire. Neither of them seem to have any interest in racing through plot points to the story’s denouement. Instead, like Cook, Searles lets us get to know the characters and takes his time layering the narrative. Help For The Haunted  is the story of Sylvie Mason and her unusual family. It is part mystery, part ghost story and part family drama.

“Whenever the phone rang late at night, I lay in my narrow bed and listened,” says 14-year-old Sylvie, the narrator of the story. Late night phone calls are a common occurrence in the Mason household. That’s because Sylvie’s parents, Sylvester and Rose, have a very unusual occupation: they help the haunted. People who feel they may be themselves, or have family members who are, possessed by demons seek them out and the Masons help with prayer. It’s not a lucrative business, people ” only occasionally enclosed a check to cover gas or airline tickets” but it is work that the Masons, particularly the father, feel strongly about.

The phone call that opens the novel is of a more personal nature, though. The Mason’s eldest daughter, also named Rose, has asked her parents to meet her at the church in town.  Rose has always been difficult and on this occasion she has been missing for three days. The Masons don’t want to miss this opportunity to reconcile with their daughter so, despite the blizzard, they head to the church, Sylvie in tow.

When Sylvie’s dad disappears inside the church Sylvie admits to “a prickly feeling of dread” and when her mother ventures inside to see what is taking so long, Sylvie drifts off to sleep only to be awoken by the sound of gun shots.

Searles manages a tricky narrative here. The present blends seamlessly with the past as Sylvie tries to unlock some of her family’s most closely guarded secrets. There is a compelling cast of secondary characters including her father’s estranged older brother, Howie; Sam Heekin, the reporter who wrote a book about her parents; Albert Lynch, the man currently sitting in jail for the murder of her parents.

Sylvie herself, despite her young age, is tenacious and resourceful. A year after the death of her parents, as the police put the finishing touches on their case against Albert Lynch, Sylvie starts to doubt what she saw in the church on that fateful night. New evidence shows that Lynch might, in fact, be innocent and it makes Sylvie question her earlier statement. But if Lynch isn’t the killer, who is?

Help For The Haunted is a literary page-turner. The whodunit isn’t actually as important as Sylvie’s journey from adolescent to adult and the demons, ultimately, are more human than you might think. Great book.