The Story of Arthur Truluv

Friday Feature — Review with Book Discussion Questions!
Friday Features are an irregular occurrence on my blog that include things other than book reviews, something a little extra. This might include author interviews (hint to any authors out there who want to get interviewed), bibliographies, book trailers and program ideas. While I’m not limiting myself to talk about these things just on Fridays, it will be something extra special to finish off the work week.

Story of Arthur Truluv.jpgTitle: The Story of Arthur Truluv
Author: Elizabeth Berg
ISBN: 9781400069903
Pages: 222
Publisher/Date: Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, c2017.

He is folding up his chair, getting ready to go when he sees a young woman sitting on the ground, her back against a tree. Spiky black hair, pale skin, big eyes. Jeans all ripped like the kids do, T-shirt that looks like it’s on a hanger, the way it hangs on her. The girl ought to have a coat, or at least a sweater, it’s not that warm. She ought to be in school.
He’s seen her here before. She sits various places, never near any particular grave site. She never looks at him. She stares out ahead of herself, picking at her nails. That’s all she does. Fourteen? Fifteen? He tries waving at her today, but when she sees him she puts her hand to her mouth, as though she’s frightened. He thinks she’s ready to run, and so he turns away. (7)

Arthur Moses first encounters Maddy Harris in the graveyard. Maddy goes there to escape the isolation of school, and Arthur goes there every afternoon to sit at the graveside and have lunch with his deceased wife. These two people, so totally different, easily strike up a friendship of kindred spirits. Arthur’s neighbor Lucille also finds herself in a relationship that seems destined to happen, even after years of separation. But life has a funny way of forcing people together, and after life takes unexpected turns for both Lucille and Maddy, Arthur finds himself living up to the nickname Maddy gave him; “Truluv.” Opening up both house and heart, it’s questionable who benefits and is changed the most by this burgeoning friendship.

Reading like a Lifetime or Miyazaki movie, The Story of Arthur Truluv a heartfelt story of people being in the right place at the right time, for the benefit of both themselves and for others. Everyone has some stereotypical traits, but none of the characters are overwrought in description or nature. For instance, Arthur is an old man with old joints, odd digestive ails, a dislike of profanity, and no interest in computers. Regardless of how cliché the idea is, it’s still surprising when at one point Arthur can be seen running an interloper off his property with a baseball bat. But he also is the first to broach the silence between himself and Maddy, even though he has little experience with teenagers and Maddy is sporting a nose piercing that he particularly dislikes. Arthur recognizes her as a lost soul looking for the same solace that he is seeking.

Maddy is most certainly a lost soul. Her mother died years ago, and her father has been absorbed in grief ever since, making little effort to connect with this daughter. She’s ostracized at school, ostensibly because of her dead mother although readers may get the sense there are other reasons. She is looking for love, and it’s a stroke of pure luck that Arthur comes along when he does because she finds herself in a predicament where she needs someone to look after her and her father is less than supportive.

On the flip side of the coin, Lucille, like Arthur, has love to give and is seeking camaraderie to stave off the inevitable loneliness that she sees and feels creepy into her life. Introduced to readers initially as a bossy busybody neighbor who bakes nonstop and wears an ill-fitting wig, she joyfully finds herself being wooed by a long forsaken love-interest. This short-lived opportunity softens her edges and has her seeking a purpose for the rest of her life, which she finds with the help of Arthur and Maddy. Arthur really does become an instigator, a networker, and a healer by the end of the book for both Maddy and Lucille.

I’m considering using this as a future book group title, because of the compact yet reflective narrative. Due to the different ages and stages of the characters, there are many instances of introspection that could spark the same from readers. I’ve included a sampling here, both for my future reference and for anyone else considering this for a book discussion. Warning, some spoilers are contained in the questions. If you are looking for a fast read with heart and a slice-of-life element, this one won’t do you wrong.

  • “Arthur wishes Nola were like spring; he wishes she would come back again and again. They wouldn’t even have to be together; he just wants her presence on Earth. She could be a baby reborn into a family far away from here, he wouldn’t even have to see here, ever. he would just like to know that she’d been put back where she belongs.” (6)
    Is Arthur selfish to want Nola back?
    Are there any instances in the book where characters are where they need to be instead of where they belong?
  • “A promise is a promise, even if it’s only one you made to yourself.” (12)
    Which is easier to keep, a promise made to yourself or made to others?
  • Do you think that Maddy’s right in her assertion that people are “entertained by cruelty?” (14) What else could they be entertained by?
  • How would you describe Maddy’s relationship with Anderson. Did it turn out as you expected?
  • There’s a fascination with age and death in the story. Maddy and Arthur meet in a graveyard, there’s repeated mentions of living to 100, and concepts of death, birth, and the after-life are nonchalantly conversed about by every character. Is your personality and outlook on life and death dependent on where you are in your life? How have the personal tragedies of the characters shaped their view of life, death, and the afterlife?
  • Arthur says “I suppose we might be old-fashioned, but I don’t think love is.” Do you agree or disagree? Has love changed over the years, and if so how? (100)
  • Lucille argues with Arthur that “no one even sees you when you get old except for people who knew you when you were young.” (114) Would Maddy agree with this statement? Who sees you when you are young?
  • Lucille asserts that Arthur and herself are useless now because they don’t do anything. Arthur’s rebuttal is quoted here. What do the rest of the characters do? Do you agree with his assessment? Have we turned into a world of consumers/readers instead of doers?

“Let me ask you something,” he says, finally. […]
“Did you ever hear anyone day they wanted to be a writer?” […]
Everybody wants to be a writer,” Arthur says. […]
“But what we need are readers. Right? Where would writers be without readers? Who are they going to write for? And actors, what are they without an audience? Actors, painters, dancers, comedians, even just ordinary people doing ordinary things, what are they without an audience of some sort?
“See, that’s what I do. I am the audience. I am the witness. I am the great appreciator, that’s what I do. […] I don’t feel useless. I feel lucky.” (128)

  • “Everybody makes mistakes, sometimes even before we get up in the morning. We can’t help but make mistakes. The important thing is to keep trying. And to apologize when you need to.” (178) What mistakes are made in the course of the story? Did any of them require apologies?
  • Maddy writes in a card “What is it that makes a family? Certainly no document does, no legal pronouncement or accident of birth. No, real families come from choices we make about who we want to be bound to, and the ties to such families live in our hearts.” (200) Were the character’s first attempts at families failures? Can you have more than one family?
  • Did the book end how you thought it would? Why or why not?
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Obsidio

Obsidio.jpgTitle: Obsidio
Series: The Illuminae Files #3 (sequel to Gemina)
Authors: Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Narrators: Full Cast, including Olivia Taylor Dudley, Johnathan McClain, Carla Corvo, MacLeod Andrews, Erin Spencer, Andrew Eiden, Lisa Cordileone, and Lincoln Hoppe, with Matthew Frow, Olivia Mackenzie-Smith, and Ryan Gessel
Illustrators: Start Wade (ship insignia illustrations), Meinert Hansen (military map and ship blueprint and schematics), Marie Lu (select journal illustrations), Lisa Weber (select journal illustrations)
ISBN: 9781101916728 (audiobook),
Discs/CDs: 11 CDs, 13 hours 1 minute
Pages: 618 pages
Publisher/Date: LaRoux Industries Pty Ltd and Neverafter Pty Ltd., Listening Library, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, c2018 (audiobook), LaRoux Industries Pty Ltd. and Neverafter Pty Ltd. (text), Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, c2018.

“Ladies and gentleman,” Boll interjects. “The facts are these: Hypatia‘s current damage levels mean she’d take at least seven months to return to Kerenza IV, even if she had the fuel to get there. The Mao‘s engines appear entirely intact, so it seems we have no choice but to leave Hypatia behind. Once we transfer her population to the Mao, we’re going to have nearly thirty-four hundred people aboard a freighter designed for what I suspect is a thousand at best. Our life support will be working overtime; we’ll have limited H2O, limited food. Presumbing we even make it back to Kerenza IV, we have no idea what’s gone on planetside while we’ve been away. The best we can hope for is the colony is still somehow intact, and that we don’t starve to death or suffocate on our way back there. Do I need to go on?”
It’s enough for Garver to forget his outrage, and he’s quieter when he speaks again. “Is there any good news at all, Captain?”
Hanna pipes up from by the wall. “BeiTech thinks we’re all dead?”
“Hooooraayyyyy,” Kady adds helpfully, shooting Hanna a wink. (63-64)

Survivors from the attacked colony Kerenza IV and the collateral damage Jump Station Heimdall have finally opened formal lines of communication. While reunions and introductions should be happy occasions, as you can see by the quote there’s the pressing need of supplies and a way home for both stranded ships and their passengers since the jump station has been destroyed. Captain Boll’s plan to board and commandeer the Mau (over Chief Garver’s objections) and head back to Kerenza IV to save themselves, but then an intercepted transmission makes the mission more vital; there are people still planetside, but some of them aren’t going to be friendly to their arrival. Among the remaining colonists is Kady’s cousin Asha, who’s resistance group is getting desperate as word spreads that the BeiTech “goons” are going to leave no survivors, once they harvest enough fuel. Enter Asha’s ex-boyfriend Rhys, a BeiTech tech who wasn’t involved in the original invasion team but has been called planetside because someone keeps messing up the invader’s equipment. They haven’t spoken in over a year, and miracles aren’t the only thing in short supply, but will any of these characters ever find their way safely home?

The groups previously introduced in the first two installments of Amie Kaufman’s and Jay Kristoff’s sprawling space odyssey have now met in real life. And at over 1800 pages, a day and a half worth of audio narration, and over seven months of action in the story, not counting the two years of elapsed time between the “now” and “flashbacks” that make up the majority of the story, it definitely feels like an odyssey. The production team behind the audiobooks continues to excel at their translation of a very visual creation into an audible one. Other audiobook companies, take note, this is a ******** radio drama! The first one won the Audie for Multi-Voice Performance, and the second one was a finalist in the Young Adult Category (remember those slight errors I mentioned in my review? I wonder if that played a factor in their loosing out on the gold.) I see this one being recognized as well. From sound affects to modulations, to the number of people involved, they pulled out all the stops. There was one pivotal scene where I think at the end of the chapter they should have held the pause between tracks just a little longer in order to allow readers time to process what they just heard, but that is minor compared to everything else they did right. I recognize that some people prefer the visual experience of reading the books and seeing the ephemera portrayed, but I started this series as an audiobook and there was no way I was going to end it any other way. Do check out the book, if only to flip through it and see the illustrations contributed by Marie Lu (famed author in her own right) and Lisa Weber.

I thought Asha and Rhys deserved more screen time and more development, but considering we only had access to them for a short, limited time, I understand that things were probably cut. Their involvement with each other felt inevitable, and I would have liked to have seen the evolution of their feelings just a bit more, especially Asha’s. The quick-quipping conversations between the returning characters are just as I remembered, with back and forth banter that shows just how well they know each other and also how much they have been through. I burst out laughing at some of the comments, like Nik messing with Ella making her think the language file was corrupted by quoting random bits of Latin and other languages, or when AIDAN (yes he’s back) tells Ella “My systems still have difficulty interpreting certain human mannerisms. If you could avoid speech modes involving false ambivalence and irony, that would decrease the risk of terminal failure of my synaptic network.” Ella’s response is “ur saying i could literally kill you with sarcasm” [sic]. In fact, the most humorous bits of conversation feature either Ella or Nik as participants, probably due to their upbringing. When Niklas finds himself trying to work a part of the ship (all hands on deck during this time of need), he relays over the coms “Um . . . yeah, all the lights are green back here, too. Wait, no … [thump thump] Yep, there it goes.” (615) Oh, and as an added bonus, we learn the identity of the Analyst ID who has been narrating the entire story thus far.

Kady, Hanna, and Ezra all grow in their character development. Hanna learns her father has died, and she struggles with how to process but also hide her grief as she is called on to help. Ezra has to deal with authority, both assuming it and accepting it, and we all realize that he might not ever fully achieve either. Kady has a pivotal scene where you really get to see her strength in character. Ian Grant (her father) makes a lovely gesture that lets you know where she gets her strength from. New characters or those we haven’t had much contact with emphasize these are still teenagers who are essentially taking control of the situation and doing most of the planning. In quieter moments, which are so rare in their world of everything falling apart around them, and in heart-wrenching and shocking scenes that we see how invested these characters, especially Kady, are in saving not only their lives but the lives of everyone else. Everyone has been changed completely by this experience, and we see a little glimpse at the very end of how they try to handle, cope, and recuperate. As they remember their fallen, I will remember this story for a while.

Overall, I’m looking forward to their next series by this pair. Aurora Cycle, the first one titled Aurora Rising is slated for release in April of 2019.

The Wicked and the Divine

Wicked and Divine vol 1.jpgWicked and Divine vol 2.jpgSeries: The Wicked and the Divine
Titles: The Faust Act (vol. 1), Fandemonium (vol. 2), Commercial Suicide (vol. 3), Rising Action (vol. 4), Imperial Phase part 1 (vol 5), Imperial Phase part 2 (vol 6)
Creators: Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
Illustrators: Matthew Wilson (colorist) and Clayton Cowles (letterer) and others (depending on the issue/volume)
ISBNs: 9781632150196 (vol 1), 9781632153272 (vol 2), 9781632156310 (vol 3), 9781632159137 (vol 4), 9781534301856 (vol 5), 9781534304734 (vol 6)
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Image Comics, Inc., c2014-2018′

Every ninety years twelve gods return as young people. They are loved. They are hated. In two years, they are all dead. It’s happening now. It’s happening again. (back cover)
Just because you’re immortal doesn’t mean yo

u’re going to live forever. (unpaged, vol 1)

Wicked and Divine vol 3.jpg

Wicked and Divine vol 4.jpg

This is a smart, complicated, topsy-turvy comic series is a work in progress, with October’s volume seven  collecting the final installments of the first arc of this monthly publication. Readers are introduced to Laura, a seventeen year old South Londoner who is enamored with the Pantheon, both the idea of it, and the people who make it up. However, starting with an assassination attempt after a concert, readers realize just how dangerous it is for the gods and their followers. Nonbelievers are trying to prove trickery, and gods are trying to prove superiority, both among the public and among themselves. As the body toll rises, the clock is ticking for all of them to prove and discover who they all are, to each other and to themselves.

There are several tantalizing cliff-hangers throughout the collected volumes where grand reveals are dropped out of nowhere and readers are left scratching their heads and trying to process the shift in perspectives. Drawing from both little and well known mythologies, the large cast, changing identities, and table-flip worthy surprises may frustrate readers in the best way. A book about a group of twelve deities called the Pantheon could have gone the easy route of twelve white, Greek-based gods and goddesses, and the research and thought they put into the work is appreciated. However, there are some bread crumbs that fall like rocks, and you don’t recognize their significance until they are mentioned later in the story, leading me to encourage binge reading and rereading to find all the little clues and allusions hidden throughout the story.

Many websites have mentioned the effortless diversity portrayed, with gender (male, female, transgender person), sexuality (bisexual, asexual), and ethnicity (Asian, African American, bi-racial, white) all represented in a variety of options and combinations. There’s also some interesting social issues mixed in, including an abusive relationship where the woman is the overly dominant half, and a goddess who controls her powers through her alcoholism. Sex, nudity, and promiscuity are common among the deities, with most of their “performances” sparking a trance like state compared to the ultimate orgasm or drug trip, so I wouldn’t recommend this series to conservative audiences.

The whole story line provides commentary on celebrity culture, death, and pursuit of power. Most of the characters in the Pantheon are selfish, egotistical, brooding, and border on pathological, with one or two notable exceptions. Altruism doesn’t seem to exist. Whether it’s the power that has corrupted them or their moodiness was a pre-existing condition is hard to determine. In the beginning, they reminded me of a reality television show, with attention-seeking, self-motivated behavior with little impulse control or motivation to develop it. Yes they have different characteristics (as explained in the previous paragraph) but their uniformity in behavior (basically acting superior to everyone else) splits slightly by the second half of the series as loyalties are questioned and divisions form.

Wicked and Divine vol 5.jpg

Wicked and Divine vol 6.jpg

The artwork is stunning, multi-dimensional and engaging, ranging from underground raves to meeting rooms that look like they belong in the movie Tron. The scenes where we see the deities reincarnate are uniform but unique in their own way, adding specific elements to represent each god and goddess. Fire, lasers, and supernatural elements are all brightly rendered. Each character gets their own font when they go “Super Saiyan” to borrow from another series, adding to the artistic uniqueness but also serving a purpose, cluing readers to pay attention before something even happens. With any series, there are one or two times where the story diverges, but all plot points usually, eventually, converge. In the case of the artwork, most of the backstories are told in Commercial Suicide (volume 3), with guest artists stepping in to provide a differential style of artwork to each deity. It’s slightly jarring upon first reading, especially since some of the chapters are exceedingly short and give you little time to acclimate. The final story line of volume 3 featuring Sakhmet was an especially jarring art style from the typical depictions. Each volume also contains bonus content that gives you a glimpse of the creative process, which I think is especially beneficial to budding creators, regardless of their age.

We’ll have to wait for the last installment to see just what happens when the plots finally do coalesce, but it’s a lot to bring together in the “final” volume of this story arc.

The Tea Dragon Society

Tea Dragon SocietyTitle: The Tea Dragon Society
Author/Illustrator: Katie O’Neill
Lettered by: Saida Temofonte
Designed by: Hilary Thompson
Edited by: Ari Yarwood
ISBN: 9781620104415
Pages: 72 pages
Publisher/Date: Oni Press, Inc., c2017.

“I don’t want blacksmithing to be forgotten. . .
. . . I want to keep making objects for people to love and give them a story. Maybe one day, someone’ll think about who gave it to them or where they bought it. Or who they shared it with. Or who owned it long ago.
. . . That’s a kind of magic, isn’t it?”
“I believe it is.” (56)

Greta is learning from her mother the art of blacksmithing, an old skill that made blacksmiths as important as magicians but now is a dying art. Upon encountering a dragon in the market, Greta returns her to her owners and begins to learn how to care for the unique creatures. Tea-shop owners Hesekiel and Erik have recently picked up a stray of their own, a promising prophetess named Minette who is suffering from self-protective memory problems. All these stories converge into a year long collection of vignettes exploring friendship, loyalty, and memory.

These are sweet characters occupying a world where its residents have a mixture of human and animal attributes that don’t seem to phase anyone. Pale-skinned Minette has tiny antlers, a tail, and cloven hooves, dark-skinned Greta has horns that are smaller versions of her mother’s and a squared off nose, and Hesekiel’s gray fur, elongated face, ears, and bent legs remind me of a kangaroo. The two most human characters are Greta’s dark-skinned father and wheel-chair bound Erik, also dark-skinned (but lighter then Greta and her father), with braids mimicking those of his magic wielding partner, Hesekiel. A group photo from another time shows several other types, including something resembling an abominable snowman, possibly an escaped elf from Lord of the Rings, and someone with a long bushy squirrel’s tail. The diversity is never remarked upon, and the small cast of characters makes the whole community feel very intimate and close. It’s not just diversity in physical attributes, but in relationships (same sex vs. heterosexual) and professions (mom is a blacksmith).

It’s also surprisingly tight-knit, as even in the market scenes you see no one besides the named characters. There is no supporting cast except for that one previously mentioned group photo shown during a retold story and a blink and you’ll miss it (I know I did) street vendor and no customers even though we come in contact with four business owners. The story is equally narrow in plot, as Minette’s memory loss is relayed as a matter-of-fact, and just as easily brushed off as it’s not a problem because she’s making so many good new memories with people who care about her.

The dragons uninspired names reflect the tea that they are used to create. Half have round, squat bodies like dogs, and the other half are more slender and serpentine in nature, with the narrower tails that have a puff of fur at the ends. In fact, the non-textured coloration means none of them have the scales that most people picture when the word “dragon” is used. Unique attributes are given to each dragon that make them seem more like Pokemon. More intriguing is Greta’s sidekick Brick, who seems to be an animated burning coal that does nothing but follows Greta around, although he also seems to get left out of events regularly. How did he come into existence? What is his purpose? He reminds me of the soot sprites from Spirited Away.

You can tell that this quirky society is an act of love for the author, and its quiet moments will allow readers to have a quiet moment to themselves with this book. It’s a simple meandering plot with very little tension, action, or mystery. More of a character study, it’s done so beautifully that you probably won’t mind, but instead hope to be reunited with them soon. This is the quintessence of a feel good story.

rainbow books From HB 6-2016I’m making an effort to review stories centered around gender during June, in recognition of June being LGBT Pride Month. Stay tuned for more.
Image used from Horn Book’s 2016 Pride Month Kickoff

How to Stop Time

How to Stop TimeTitle: How to Stop Time
Author: Matt Haig
ISBN: 9780525522874
Pages: 325 pages
Publisher/Date: Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, c2017.

I am old.
That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong.
I am old — old in the way that a tree, or a quahog clam, or a Renaissance painting is old.
To give you an idea: I was born well over four hundred years ago on the third of March 1581, in my parents’ room, on the third floor of a small French chateau that used to be my home. (5)

Estienne Thomas Ambroise Christophe Hazard has lived a long life under many names. Now going by the name Tin Hazard, he has earned a position teaching history at a prestigious school in London. As Tom told the head of the protective Albatross Society, a group that purportedly aids people like him who age slowly and live longer than most, he wants “an ordinary life.” But as a reluctant member of this society billed as safeguarding his existence, there is no such thing as an ordinary life. One of the rules of this society is to never fall in love, which Tom has no trouble with after loosing his first love, wife Rose, and second love, daughter Marion. The main reason he continues to hide from society is so he can continue to search for his daughter, who disappeared after her mother died while he was away trying to prevent their persecution. However, when someone new enters the picture and questions his lonely connection to this world he’s lived in, Tom wonders if he’ll be breaking this rule in order to break free. And if he does, what will happen to the person he’s finally started to care about?

I find myself more focused on the characters then the writing style, which I guess says all you need to know about the narrative. When asked to describe this book, I find myself comparing it Time Traveler’s Wife meets Tuck Everlasting, although I guess it’s more a romantic version of Tuck Everlasting. Which is to say that unexplained longevity and the challenges that come with it are not new to literature. There is definitely a romance afoot from the very first time Tom (along with readers) is introduced to French teacher Camille, as he describes himself as “momentarily mesmerised” by her laugh-lit face. Camille herself however seems to be more an impetus  for Tom to pivot his thinking around. He is resigned to his existence, however melancholy, until he meets Camille, whom we learn very little about but who’s existence forces him to reconsider his secretive brooding apathy. At one point she relates Tom how as a child with seizures “I was scared of life. […] I was always worrying I could die at any minute.” Of her time working in a grand hotel, she says that she “would be speaking to people all the time, all day, checking in, checking out, but there was never anything deep and meaningful to it” and that philosophy so closely mimics Tom’s attempts at blending in with life but for the complete opposite reason. Even though their reasons are the exact opposites — Camille afraid of a short life, Tom afraid of a long life — they face the same demons of loosing love and being afraid of opening themselves up again. (237 – 238) And slowly, eventually, they both come to accept the advice that Tom gets from an older woman finally approaching the end of her life who also suffers from Tom’s condition; “There comes a time when the only way to start living is to tell the truth. To be who you really are, even if it is a dangerous.” (265)

The book time jumps quite a bit though (hence Time Traveler’s Wife), as we see Tom’s “original” life in the late 1500s, some snippets during his employment with Shakespeare, Captain Cook, and Fitzgerald, and finally a more modern day environment. Tom’s desire to stay off the radar is understandable when we see how first his mother and then his love were persecuted by his inability to age. It’s interesting to compare the injustice done to these women (they were accused of bewitching him) and Tom’s damnation through association, rather than Tom facing the public stigma directly. As told by someone Tom later met, “She had cast a charm and killed a man to give her boy eternal life.” (156) As a final cherry on top, the one other person he trusts with his secret, a doctor exploring aging named Dr. Hutchinson, also is on the receiving end of consequences due to Tom’s condition. How does that compare today, when women’s actions are used to justify strange appearance or behavior of another guy? Maybe I’m stretching here, but I can’t deny that my brain made that connection.

Hendrich, the only other person that we actually see for most of the novel who shares Tom’s condition (there are others who pass through), is more of an enigma then Tom. Throughout the course of the novel, we receive very little background information about Hendrich, who seems to be the brains behind this organization that operates under the guise of protecting the afflicted. However, we don’t know any details regarding its establishment, Hendrich’s early life, or his ability to continue to serve as it’s defacto head. Also, Tom and everyone else’s blind acceptance of his authority is never fully explained, except that Hendrich catches Tom at a weak point in his life and seems capable of manipulating people’s emotions. He continues to promise Tom his help in Tom’s search for his missing daughter, but I wonder at what point even someone with such a long life as Tom and Hendrich would finally get tired of waiting. It’s also difficult for others who have this condition to envision anything different then this agreement because they are intentionally left isolated from each other by Hendrich. He seems to pull power from his unlimited knowledge of the others and his own unhindered activities and mystery, much like the Wizard of Oz, and his methods are never elaborated.

A lot of options for discussion direction, possibly particularly with a book group with older participants as they grapple with their own questions of longevity and loneliness. I end this blog with a final quote, almost at the very end of the book.

“Why are you the one scared of time? You’re going to live for ever. […] It’s strange.”
“What’s strange?”
“How much time you spend worrying about the future.”
“Why? It always happens. That’s the thing with the future.”
“Yes, it always happens. But it’s not always terrible.” (323)

Piecing Me Together

Piecing Me Together.jpgTitle: Piecing Me Together
Author: Renee Watson
ISBN: 9781681191058
Pages: 264 pages
Publisher/Date: Bloomsbury Children’s Books, c2017.
Awards: Newbery Honor Award (2018), Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner (2018)

The front of the folder shows a group of black women–adults and teens–smiling and embracing one another. Woman to Woman: A Mentorship Program for African American Girls. Mrs. Parker is smiling like what she’s about to tell me is that she found the cure for cancer. But really, what she has to tell me sounds more like a honking horn that’s stuck, a favorite glass shattering into countless pieces on the floor. […]
“Why was I chosen for this?”
Mrs. Parker clears her throat. “Well, uh, selection was based on, uh, gender, grade, and, well, several other things.”
“Like?”
“Well, uh, several things. Teacher nominations . . . uh, need.”
“Mrs. Parker, I don’t need a mentor,” I tell her.
“Every young person could use a caring adult in her life.”
“I have a mother.” And my uncle, and my dad. “You think I don’t have anyone who cares about me?”
“No, no. That’s not what I said.” Mrs. Parker clears her throat. (17-18)

Junior Jade has a scholarship to attend St. Francis, a mostly white, expensive private school on the other side of Portland from where she lives with her mother and uncle. When she is called down to the counselor’s office, she thinks it’s about the study abroad to trip to Spain, a trip she’s anticipated for the last two years, learning Spanish and making money for by tutoring her classmates. Instead, Jade learns she’s been nominated for Woman to Woman, a mentor program that pairs her with Maxine, a graduate of her high school. Maxine however, doesn’t seem to be the best person to mentor, showing up late to or completely forgetting about plans and being more concerned about her ex-boyfriend then Jade. Jade doesn’t want to forgo the “opportunity” to get a full-ride scholarship if she completes the program, but the things they do make her feel more out of place then ever. She’s tired of being someone who needs help, and wants to get out of town and out of her circumstances; the trick is finding someone who can listen and help in the way she needs.

I finished Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson and it’s given me some things to consider as a mentor and a librarian. There’s a lot of excellent passages that I could quote from that provide insight and an evaluation of who we feel is “in need” and what we feel they need. After much self-doubt, Jade finally gets the courage to voice her concerns about the program to her mentor Maxine. Jade tells Maxine that just because her parents aren’t around doesn’t mean she needs a mentor. (In actuality, her mother just works an nontraditional schedule and is highly involved in Jade’s life and is not like other non-existent mother characters that are cliche characters in other books.) Just because she has the opportunity to go other places doesn’t mean she wants to see what she can’t afford. Just because she lives in a “wrong side of the tracks” neighborhood doesn’t mean there aren’t still things to see and people who can help from within. Why is Jade “only seen as someone who needs and not someone who can give?” (direct quote from page 199) While it was a little preachy in places, I would recommend it for anyone who finds themselves with who we typically consider “underprivileged youth.” Sometimes even mentors need a reminder that the people they mentor are capable of contributing in their own way, and don’t need to be rescued by someone.

The material is also very relevant in relation to the Black Lives Matter conversation. Although that phrase never makes an appearance in the narrative. About two-thirds of the way in, an incident makes the news regarding a fifteen-year-old black female named Natasha Ramsey receiving a broken jaw and fractured ribs as a result of police breaking up a house party due to a noise complaint. Jade’s uncle E.J. (who is only a few years older then Jade) responds with scorn at Jade’s suggestion that they say a prayer.

“And what is prayer going to do?” E.J. asks. “Prayer ain’t nothing but the poor man’s drug.”
“What?”
“Poor people are the ones who pray. People who don’t have what they need, who can’t pay their rent, who can’t buy healthy food, who can’t save any of their paycheck because every dollar is already accounted for. Those are the people who pray. They pray for miracles, they pray for signs, they pray for good health. Rich people don’t do that,” he tells me. […]
“Be careful today, Jade. For real.” (182-183)

Jade is hyper-aware of her classmates’ response to the event, which seems nonexistent as there is no talk in the hallways, no discussion in the classroom, and from her perspective everyone is acting oblivious, except for her Spanish teacher whom she finds watching new coverage during his break. There are small instances of racism that keep frustrating Jade, especially because the only other person she talks to at school, a white classmate named Sam who also comes from her neighborhood, doesn’t seem them as racism. When Jade is the only one who gets in trouble for laughing at another student’s disrespectful comments about a staff member, Sam blames it on wealth disparity. “Her parents donate a bunch of money to the school every year. She can say and do whatever she wants,” Sam says. “That had nothing to do with her being white and your being black.” Jade responds “You know that’s what people are going to say about Natasha Ramsey. That it had nothing to do with her being black.” and Sam asks “Who?” Another time, Jade questions why she is always the one given these opportunities instead of Sam, who lives in the same area, is also lacking parents, and sees Jade as being ungrateful at having these opportunities to go places like the symphony. This is definitely a perfect scene to spark discussion for students and adults. When have their been times where two people have been in similar situations and the outcomes have been treated differently, and what factors played a role in the resulting outcomes?

We as readers will never know the real reason why her classmate doesn’t get punished for saying the comment but Jade gets in trouble for laughing at it. I think both reasons could be validated, as money and race both talk, but I also fear that as a white female I’d be accused of implicit bias if I brought up this possibility, just as Sam does. I can’t claim to understand what African Americans have to face in terms of racism, both overt and obvious, but I do understand that if you face enough situations with racial overtones, everything starts getting colored and about color. And there was at least one instance in the book of overt racism that Sam also discounts when faced with the account, that could be contributing to Jade’s mounting frustrations. Jade instead seeks out people who understand her feelings on the issue, and readers in turn gain an understanding of just how much the case has affected Jade and her friend from the neighborhood, Lee Lee. These girls are scared it could have been them or will be them, and the other white girls in Jade’s school don’t have that fear because they are insulated by their racial identity. Jade and Lee Lee feel a powerlessness that they are hesitant to admit, because then they fear it means they are, and they don’t want to see themselves or have others see them in that light. In studying Lewis and Clark and their slave York, which she finds out about from Lee Lee’s talking about her history teacher, Jade wonders if he ever “existing in a world where no one thought him strange” and I think Jade feels that otherness herself. Going to an all white school where she can’t relate her family life with that of other students, and then coming home where she can’t relate her options and experiences at school to her family, Jade and Sam share that feeling of isolation and being stuck in the middle.

I keep coming back to the previously quoted passage, “Why am I only seen as someone who needs and not someone who can give?” Jade and Lee Lee are scared, but they don’t want to be seen as someone who needs protection, reassurances, or special treatment. They are women of action, and by the end, it’s inspiring that they found a way to tie resources from their community into a proactive attempt at change. Jade responds to a question that she has learned from the mentor program she doesn’t “have to wait to be given an opportunity” and I think that’s really the most important thing that we can teach the people we mentor. This book is placed in the teen collection at my local library, but I feel it would be appropriate for middle school reading.

It’s making me consider how I can reach out more professionally and personally to fulfill the needs and the desires of the kid I mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters and the public I serve. What are we pressing on others versus providing others? How can we identify what patrons need but also what they can give, and how do we tie the two together? I welcome your thoughts in the comments, and also recommendations for further reading on either enacting these goals, or working with populations that are traditionally seen as underprivileged, but should never be seen as uninformed or unable to contribute.

The Witch Boy

Witch BoyTitle: The Witch Boy
Author/Illustrator: Molly Knox Ostertag
ISBN: 9781338089516
Pages: 217 pages
Publisher/Date: Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2017.

“I don’t understand why Juniper and Hazel and them can all learn how to talk to trees and make potions and do spells and I can’t. It’s not fair.”
“But, Aster, that magic isn’t for you. How many times do I have to explain that?”
“But I want to learn it!”
“Women and men have different types of magic, and witches pass down their knowledge from mother to daughter. That’s how it is and how it’s always been, my son.
But it’s not like there’s nothing for you! Soon your shapeshifting will begin, and with it, the ability to see demons and to fight them. You’ll be one of the men.” (7-8)

In an insular community in the woods, a family of witches and shapeshifters pass along their skills to their daughters and sons, respectively. All except for Aster, who is more interested in learning magic and spells then shape shifting. When first one, and then multiple, young shapeshifters go missing, the family rallies to find them, but they still don’t stop to listen to Aster’s findings. Past problems come back to haunt them, and Aster might be the only one who can figure out what’s going on in time to stop it.

I find myself evaluating my views about this book. I originally felt that this is a relatively heavy-handed, thinly-veiled allegory of coming out as transgender, which a number of reviewers and bloggers have mentioned. However, I am reminded of Tamora Pierce, who wrote the Alanna series about a girl becoming a knight and assuming the disguise and role of a boy in order to accomplish her goal. Upon reading that series when I was younger, and even today, it never dawned on me to make those same assumptions about Alanna. Alanna was simply a tomboy, much like myself at that age, who enjoyed pursuing hobbies that were typically deemed masculine. Aster, in the same way, doesn’t want to be a woman, he just wants to do things that are identified in his society as feminine. That’s not transgender, but instead it’s fighting societal stereotypes of gendered activities.

I think the difference between my perception of Alanna and Aster is not only the modern day awareness of non-gender conforming actions, but also the use of this characteristic in the stories. Alanna’s story, while dependent upon keeping her identity a secret, has other traits that appear throughout the story, such as her impulsiveness, reluctance to ask for or accept help, her fears and hopes and dreams and motivations. Aster wants to do what “girls” do and has the magic of a witch inside of him, even though everyone else perceives him as a shapeshifter and expects him to be a shapeshifter. He seems quiet, but he is dedicated to his family, even though they continue to deny him his desires. That’s the entirety of our knowledge about his personality. The story is dependent upon the “I want to do what I’m not allowed to do” troupe with very little backstory or explanation of how or why events proceed as they do. His entire purpose is to be recognized as someone who can perform feminine tasks, which doesn’t yield itself to much engagement from readers.

There are a number of additional questions regarding the background of the characters. They all seem to be related, but there is no information about where the in-laws came from and how people who married into the family acquired their powers. What prompts these disappearances to begin now, after all these years? Even after the cause of the disappearances is discovered, the culprit’s consequences are left unresolved. As already discussed, the transgender analogy is not quite the appropriate term, but if you insist on using it that label also falls apart at the end, where one of the characters claims to have a little bit of both witch and shapeshifter. Is that a nod to individuals who identify as pansexual or intersex? Instead, I think it’s meant on commentary that men and women can pursue tasks regardless of if they are seen as masculine or feminine in nature.

The artwork is similar to a lot of the graphic novels produced by Graphix, with solid, digital illustrations. I’m beginning to hope that in the future we see more variety in the artwork of graphic novels done by that company. They have good stories, but there is a sameness that is starting to make their work distinguishable from other publishers. The scenes where we discover the cause of the boys disappearances are appropriately scary and thematically colored in a wash of red, definitely distinguishing it from the more cheerful and vibrantly colored outdoor daily scenes.

It’s a nice story, but I feel like the commentary on it’s merits might be misguided. A sequel arrives on shelves later this fall, so we’ll have to see if more character development occurs. Aster’s new friend Charlie takes center stage alongside Aster on the cover, so maybe more interplay between their two lives and worlds will give us more interest and insight in their personalities then the one-dimensional portrayal provided.

rainbow books From HB 6-2016I’m making an effort to review stories centered around gender during June, in recognition of June being LGBT Pride Month. Stay tuned for more.
Image used from Horn Book’s 2016 Pride Month Kickoff

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