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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell


If you like: mixed tapes * young love * guy-liner

Eleanor & Park is a story of falling in love and all of the obstacles that can get in the way. Eleanor meets Park on her first day at a new school when she tries to find an empty seat on her new bus. Park reluctantly makes room for her, and with each ride they get to know each other a little better. Eleanor is an outcast; she is new, she stands out with bright red hair, and she comes from a poor family and must make due with very little. The music and comics that Park introduces her to help her escape a little bit from her life. As they get closer, he tries to help her become a part of his world, but her stepdad is an obstacle too big to overcome.

Eleanor and Park are the kind of couple that seem destined for each other. They both have gripping insecurities that keep them locked inside their own heads. As is often the case, what they find to be ugly about themselves is incredibly alluring to the other. Both Eleanor and Park stand out in their school, but they don’t come together because they are outsiders. Their attraction is developed out of common interests and the sweet moments of first love. Their blissful togetherness is often marred by the reality of their lives. Eleanor’s life is so restricted that she is constant fear of having the joy of being with Park be ripped away from her. They do not allow these constraints to force them into rash decisions, in fact they openly mock Romeo and Juliet, but the reality of life outside of the two of them does make their time together all the sweeter.

Young adulthood is often impaired by the difficulties of finding yourself and realizing that your views don’t always align with those of your parents. The kids who are lucky are able to find a way to angstily work with their parents to find a compromise they can all tolerate. Park is one of these kids. Though his differences with his father prevent them from being as close as they both wish they could be, there are no hurdles that cannot be overcome. They have their differences, and will never have a close bond, but they are able to have an understanding that creates a different sort of bond between them. At heart, they both want to do what is right, to be good men. This link helps them to work around their different interests and views. Eleanor is much less lucky. She comes from a broken home, and has a stepdad who is the type of man who is a destructive force that poisons everything he touches. Just returning after being kicked out for a year, she is treading lightly on thin ice in everything she does. She wants to be with her family, but longs to escape the despair of the household. Her life was filled with difficulty long before she grew up, and gaining her own agency and perspective only makes matters worse. Living with an unpredictable force makes life a waking nightmare for her. There is no place at home that is calm or safe. It is like living with a ticking time bomb that has no counter: you never know when it will go off. Being with Park and seeing how life could be helps her to understand what she must do. It is not enough to temporarily escape, she knows that she must take action in order to help herself. Love is a lot, but it is not enough to guarantee safety and shelter. The tragedy of Eleanor and Park’s love story is not a battle between two households with an ancient grudge between them. Their love is not star-crossed, but that doesn’t mean their happy ending is within arms reach. Together they learn a lot about who they are, and who they are becoming. They also learn that sometimes a the best option isn't the one you want.

If you hated riding the bus until you found the right seat, read Eleanor & Park.

Rowell, Rainbow. Eleanor & Park. St. Martin's Press, 2013. Kindle Edition.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Dead by Charlie Higson


If you like: the undead * Lord of the Flies * rot
 

The Dead traces the beginnings of the outbreak a year before the events in The Enemy occur. The sickness has just spread in The Dead, and many do not know the rules of how to survive it yet. There are many questions about when people will turn, and whether or not it can be avoided. Any children are just emerging from their initial shelters, and are not yet hard-worn warriors of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. There is still hope that some last bastion of healthy adults that will arrive in order to restore order and end the madness taking place.

In The Dead, we see how several different groups have dealt with the emerging crisis. Our main group is ill prepared, having been isolated at a prep school at the time of the outbreak. Their limited interaction with the outside world means that they lived in a remote, protected area where teachers were able to isolate them from the worst of the initial violence and destruction. Within this group are those that cling to the promise of religion to carry them through. Though their visions are the remnants of carbon monoxide poisoning, they are no less fervent in their belief. Two other groups have both adopted a militant stance inspired by a disciplined leader. David King’s group follows his every order, and his unbreakable will gets them what they need. Unfortunately, bravado and force will only get you so far with the infected, so they have experienced casualties. The group at the Imperial War Museum led by Jordan are similar. He knows they have limited resources that will be very necessary to their survival. Saving everyone who comes by would mean reducing the chances of all their survival. Though he too has strong resolve, he is no where near as unyielding as David. Jordan is the type of leader who is willing to make some concessions for the greater good. Though immediate safety is paramount, access to food and water are nearly as important. The groups that understand this will be the best suited to survive in this new, terrible landscape.

Each kid deals with the end of normalcy in a different way. Some refuse to accept what they must do in order to survive. For Ed, it is nearly impossible to accept that he must be willing to use force against those he still recognizes as humans. He won’t let go of the notion that they are people he has known or may have known. Others, like Jack, hold out the belief that once they make it to a certain place they will be fine. For some it is home, and for others it is a landmark that holds happy memories and dreams for the future. In some ways this type of belief is far more dangerous than that of Ed, since
no place has escaped the spread of the disease. These people are willing to do what it takes to get them to their point of salvation. They are willing to fight irrationally or make great sacrifices believing that once they get to their destination all will be fine. With the destruction of the greater world, having long-term planning is just as critical as taking care of short-term needs. Relying on dreams of the future will not heal your wounds or fill your belly. The worst are the type who refuse to believe any of this is happening to them. Like Ed, they are not willing to cause harm. Unlike Ed, they do not commit to the necessary actions to their survival. They will not let go of the accruements of their past life, or admit this new danger applies to everyone. Those who cannot except that all over 16 can be infected are the greatest danger. Harboring the secret of those who will change jeopardizes the lives of everyone around them. The combination of these three states makes the early stages of this outbreak vastly more dangerous than the later. Though the sickos will be more hungry as the easy prey are eliminated, the survivors will be the hardened type who are much more successful. When everyone is so focused on clinging to the delusions that carried them through the first moments of the birth of this new nightmare, no one is focused on doing what it takes to band together and save as many people as possible. Selfish-disillusionment is just as merciless of a killer as any infected adult.

If you know everything will be fine if you can just get home, read The Dead.

Higson, Charlie. The Dead (An Enemy Novel). Hyperion, 2011. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Parasite by Mira Grant


If You Like: tapeworms * zombies * amnesia

In Parasite, people have been living with Intestinal Bodyguard, genetically modified tapeworms created by SymboGen Corp, for many years. These implants are designed to eliminate the modern day ills attributed to the hygiene hypothesis: autoimmune diseases, allergies, asthma, MS, depression, and cancer to name a few. With the availability of personally tailored implants. people quickly accepted these life changing creatures. As the years went on, some people realized that these common implants contained more than SymboGen acknowledge with increasingly terrifying results. Though initially a medical addition that could change life for the better, the Intestinal Bodyguards were beginning to hijack their hosts into sleepwalking, zombie-like people with no trace remaining of who they once were. Sally, now Sal, Mitchell nearly died in a violent car crash six years ago, but was saved by her implant. Though she has always been skeptical of SymboGen’s motivations in backing her recovery, she is increasingly suspicious as the true nature of the sleepwalkers is revealed.

Common fears of big pharma paired with limited general understanding of what really makes us function provides the perfect blend of conspiracy, cutting edge science, and paranoia in Parasite. In some ways, the current anti-vax and anti-medicine views that so many take make the widespread adoption of the Intestinal Bodyguard seem a little far fetched. On the other hand, this creation is the perfect combination of traditional and alternative medicine that it may just hit the sweet spot of adoptability. Seeking a natural way to receive all the promises of modern medicine is just irresistible. We all want to believe there is a miracle cure out there. We also want to believe that it won’t be discovered by an equation or a chemical compound, but by looking to nature for inspiration. This is what makes the Intestinal Bodyguard the perfect solution. On the other hand, this panacea is so alluring that it is easy to be too lenient in questioning its makeup. People also believe that things derived from nature are never as harmful as those being dispensed from a prescription bottle. Unfortunately, the hybrid that is the Intestinal Bodyguard is anything but natural, instead it is a carefully cultured cure-all that is just a little too close in genetic makeup to its host to be easily irradiated. The line becomes blurred between ours selves and our bodies, making it harder and harder to understand what truly makes a person. What seems like an innocent implant at first becomes a living nightmare when you realize that the same people who gave it to you don’t really have a definitive way of taking it back.

Parasite questions just what people are willing to do to feel better. Humans are a delicately woven composition of innumerable microbiota. Every day it seems we learn about a new role that the creatures living inside of us play in every aspect of our lives. They hygiene hypothesis is not some far-fetched scientific theory, but considered a possible cause of much of what ails us. Already we look to symbiotic relationships with those things that seek to make us their home in order to improve our health. So many look to yogurt and other probiotics as a cure-all. Some even consider becoming willing hosts to parasites, not unlike the theory that SymboGen extorts. Just how different is purposefully cultivating a tapeworm than actively seeking a hookworm infection to cure inflammatory bowel disease. Now we seek immunotherapy to cure our allergies, injecting the allergen itself to make it a part of us. How different would having a creature secreting those same medicines inside us really be? There is so much we do not know about the biosphere that makes up who we are. We think we know, but it will be years before we truly understand the role that bacteria play in our intelligence, personality, and physicality. Is it too hard to believe that these creatures could take us over and make us into someone entirely new? With the significant impact they already have, would that really be altogether different?

If you strive to be a good host, read Parasite.

Grant, Mira. Parasite. Hachette Book Group, 2013. Audio edition.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Dinosaur Feather by S.J. Gazan

If you like: parasites * murder * science
 

In The Dinosaur Feather, Anna is nearing the completion of her dissertation when one of her supervising professors is mysteriously murdered. With just two weeks until her presentation and defense, Anna's whole world is shaken as the investigation delves into the department and her life. As the mystery surrounding Professor Helland’s death is investigated, Anna realizes there are many pieces to her own life that haven’t been put together yet, either.

Anna’s dissertation is an examination of the controversy of whether or not dinosaurs are birds. Her advisers are staunch proponents of the theory that birds are modern day dinosaurs. Their most vocal opponent has dedicated his life to the theory that they are two entirely different types of creatures. The bitter opposition between the groups is initially believed to drive the murder of Helland. Though it is hard to picture the academic characters resorting to the extreme action of murder in order to silence an opponent, the argument is so fervent it is not out of the realm of possibility. This is what Anna seeks to end with her dissertation. Though she is partial to the views of her advisers, she is able to take an impartial stance at her data review in order to evaluate both sides with fresh eyes. Her youth allows her to step back from the arguments that all other parties are too close to, and have lived with for too long. Though she often feels that her efforts are not taken seriously enough, she is a powerful, insightful researcher. Her place in the field will enable everyone to move forward towards new discoveries instead of attempting to re-prove discoveries from the past.

Although Anna’s work focuses on the evolution of dinosaurs and birds, her personal evolution is an equal part of the story. She has a brusque personality, and is easily angered. She has strained relationships with many people in her life, and often wonders if she keeps loving people who will leave her, or if she is the one making them leave. The mystery of Helland’s death leads her to the mysteries of her own past. As she begins to be confident in who she is, and her own agency to take command of her professional future, she also begins to approach her life with fresh eyes. The professional rite of passage becomes a catalyst for personal evolution. Gazan does not need to explore Anna’s future after her dissertation, the foundation provided is enough of a glimpse into the person she will become that the reader can imagine a much happier ending for Anna. Sometimes it is important to find out the harsh realities in order to move on. Keeping secrets to protect those you love seems to always hurt them in the long run. A quick cut can be much less painful than a long festering wound. Anna uses the scientific process to evaluate her own life. She gets rid of her assumptions and looks at the facts. Most importantly, she knows she must let go of the things she has believed in that don’t fit with new evidence. Science and life are both constantly evolving, and you must be willing to move with them, or you will be left behind.

If you have carefully considered your arguments, read The Dinosaur feather.
 

Gazan, S.J.. The Dinosaur Feather. Quercus, 2013. Kindle Edition.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Ghost Train to New Orleans by Mur Lafferty


If you like: New Orleans * ghosts * cats

The Ghost Train to New Orleans is the second Shambling Guide. The team members at Underground Publishing are embarking on their second adventure and working on their second guide for traveling coterie. Zoe continues to be surrounded by chaos and new experiences with the coterie. She is determined to keep her team in line, learn about her own abilities, and get another excellent guide out on time. Zoe struggles to build the bonds of friendship with her coterie coworkers, but over time they are beginning to develop an understanding with each other. They may not be friends just yet, but the professional respect is growing, and their worlds are becoming a little more transparent the more time they spend together.

Now that Zoe has learned she is a human coterie, things are a bit different for her. Living as a human in a coterie world was daunting, but she knew the risks. Discovering that she is an extremely rare being makes her life even more dangerous. She no longer has any inkling of which individuals in her life are trustworthy. She wants to believe the best about the Underground Publishing staff, but past experiences have taught her that isn’t always possible. There are untold risks associated with acknowledging who she is, but countless others associated with keeping her true nature secret. The only way she will ever be able to fully embrace her role in the coterie world is to find individuals who know the citytalker history, and are willing to educate her unbiasedly. Forming these bonds will help her to develop her skills, and also help her to form a protective group, which will become increasingly necessary as more and more coterie find out what she is.

The mixture of creatures and places in the Shambling Guides come together to create a tale that is constantly surprising. The world is vastly unknown to Zoe, and as her companions on the journey we learn of each new element as she does. This allows Lafferty to fill each book with lots of new information and ideas without ever needing a dumbing-down effect for the reader to be able to keep up. The evolution of this world over hundreds of years has lead to many innovations that add just the right amount of fantasy to the story. The coterie have unmistakable allure. The are beautiful and powerful, but manage to remain hidden. The tools and resources needed to keep up the facade provide a fascinating landscape for the world the Guides exist in. The narrative exploration of the world in order to find the best places to visit make the story all the more fun for the reader to follow. There is nothing better than a high stakes trip through a world of handsome, dangerous people who have access to unimaginable resources, all while dealing with idiosyncrasies only the coterie could encompass. The shift in focus from Zoe’s past to her future differentiates both guides, and leaves the series with plenty of room for the future. Though dangerous and often deceptive, the world Zoe has tumbled into is a enticing adventure that will leave the reader anxiously awaiting the next Guide.

If you you can’t wait to stay at Freddie’s Ready Bed-and-Breakfast, read The Ghost Train to New Orleans.

Lafferty, Mur. Ghost Train to New Orleans (The Shambling Guides). Orbit, 2014. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Nocturnal by Scott Sigler


If you like: Blue Balls * monsters * Mommy

In Nocturnal, a strange series of murders leads police inspectors Bryan Clauser and Pookie Chang to make unexpected discoveries about the world they live in. Initially, it appears there is a cover-up reaching through all levels of the police force. As the investigation goes on, they learn that there is a much darker explanation. Along the way, Bryan makes some unexpected discoveries about his own life, and must let go of everything he believes about himself and his life in order to move forward.

Nocturnal explores the mysteries of science and society. The monsters are a secret race from a parallel evolutionary branch. Many appear to be normal humans, but have extraordinary abilities. Others have a different genetic fate, and pay the price for their superiors skills with physical and mental deformities, or inhuman physical characteristics. It is unclear whether it is an essential development to their survival or an inherent part of their nature, but all of the monsters hold an innate preference toward violence and killing. They work to confirm that trait in their traditions and interactions -- teaching children to hunt ruthlessly from a very young age. Though they are a powerful group, they are greatly outnumbered by the general population, and live in secret to avoid being put to extinction. There are some members of society that are aware they exist. These people have worked to keep the monsters a secret. Not because they wish to protect them, but instead because they wish to protect innocent people who might be accused of carrying the mysterious new biology and murdered along with the vicious hunters they are suspected of being related to. This secret group despises these creatures, but must also protect them in order to maintain their agenda of public normalcy.


In Nocturnal, the real monsters are not just those who live underground. Some of the biological monsters are completely unaware that they could live without harming others. They have never had the chance to try to live a normal life, and so they behave in monstrous ways became they do not know there are other ways to live. There are, however, many human monsters. Abusive parents, school bullies, and corrupt police are all humans who commit monstrous acts. On the other hand, there are monsters who occasionally do the right thing. Savior shares the biology of the monsters, but acts against them instead of with them. Those who live in the area between are the most difficult to assign to one group or another. Amy Zou, the Chief of Police, often believes she is doing what is for the best, but is more than willing to compromise traditional morality to do so. In the past, she believed in black and white, in good and evil. Now she knows the lines are not so clear cut, and walking the path between them puts her in a compromised position. She has learned that doing what is right does not always have the best results, and sometimes the wrong thing protects the most people. For the monsters, who have a biological imperative to murder and kill, there is a still an element of choice. Bryan and Savior both choose to be something different. They could easily be ruthless monsters and terrorize everyone, but instead choose to hunt their brothers and sisters. This is the difference between good and evil, monsters and heroes. It would be easy to give in to nature and expectations. Fighting who you are and who you could become to work toward the greater good is what makes a hero.

If can’t resist an appealing smell, read Nocturnal.

Sigler, Scott. Nocturnal: A Novel. Crown Publishing Group, 2012. Kindle Edition.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson


If you like: PTSD * falling in love * quarries

In The Impossible Knife of Memory, Hayley is adjusting to life in high school after years on the road with her dad, Andy. They have lived a nomadic life, running from the pain of the past. He is an injured veteran, and a widower. She has learned that there is nothing more important to her than helping her dad to make it through each day. Together they have survived, but they have also begin to reflect each other. Their bond is close, but seeing each other in constant pain is hard for both of them. Hayley’s friend Gracie introduces her to Finn, and she reluctantly begins to fall in love with him. Adding another person into her world is a complicated process, but an irresistible one, too.

Hayley is a teen in remarkably difficult circumstances. At a time that is significantly difficult for any kid — applying to colleges, trying to find yourself, trying to fit in with classmates — she is facing the task of learning how to adjust to a traditional schooling environment, and being away from a father who she has been inseparable from for years. The pressure of taking care of her father has shaped Hayley in dramatic ways. Not only does she feel largely responsible for anticipating everything that might come his way, but she also won’t let anyone get close enough to help them. Being raised by a man who has suffered greatly is not easy, and she inherits some of his symptoms without realizing it. Though looking for threats and assessing the safety of a situation is important, she is unable to enter into normal interactions without constantly being on alert for threats, and being overwhelmed by too many stimuli. Though they don’t always make things easy for each other, the love between Hayley and Andy is what carries them both through each day. It is rarely easy, but that makes them fight all the harder to get through for each other. From the outside, it could look like Hayley is using her father as an excuse to remain apart from her school and the people in it. In reality, the perceived normalcy of their day-to-day lives is painful for her. Taking care of her dad is one way of coping with being different, and is a thread of consistency in a life that is constantly changing.

The Impossible Knife of Memory faces the pains of PTSD unblinkingly. The mental anguish of war is so hard to understand. For those of us who haven’t experienced it, it impossible to understand what a person has been through. The best of intentions can lead to harm. The sharp edge can slice up a person, rather than cut their bonds. The Impossible Knife illustrates that all the love in the world is not enough to pull a person through on its own, but it is the strongest tether for a person to hold onto. The internal battlefield of a person’s past can only be navigated by their own mental map. This doesn’t mean that they can’t call out for someone to walk the path with them. Hayley and Finn have both walked their paths alone for a long time. Though it is hard, it is what they know, and the idea of sharing that with another is terrifying. Slowly, they begin to see that each person has a different pain and may not need to deal in the same way. The most important tool is empathy. Being there and letting the harsh words roll off your back can be the most important thing to a loved one in a difficult situation. For Hayley and her father, the situation is a little different. Both are afraid of bringing the other person down, so they put their pain behind thinly constructed walls that are constantly threatening to topple and crush them. It is only after all the walls are taken down, and they are left with their raw emotions that they can see how much they really need each other — broken or not. It is only when this is accepted that they can make the first confident steps to finding a way to get through every day without it being too much to bear. These mental scars are deep for both of them, and will never truly go away. It is only when we accept the scars that we are able to walk on proudly, as survivors.

If you have ever tiptoed by, hoping for a better tomorrow, read The Impossible Knife of Memory.


Anderson, Laurie Halse. The Impossible Knife of Memory. Viking Juvenile, 2014. Kindle edition.