Thursday, January 24, 2013

Heather's Book Review: Blade Silver by Melody Carlson


Her father is verbally abusive. Her mother is an empty husk of a person, broken beneath her father’s words. Now, refusing to suffer under her father any longer, her brother has run away from home, infuriating her father even further and causing him to take out his anger on her. Ruth Wallace’s situation is a rough one. She has no idea how to cope with it, and so she tries to control her pain in the only way she knows how. She cuts herself.


Blade Silver by Melody Carlson tells the story of Ruth’s struggle with cutting—her many reasons for doing it, her struggle to hide it from even her closest friends, and eventually, the steps she takes to help herself put her razors away for good.


Self-mutilation is a sensitive topic for several reasons. One is that people who don’t “get” self-mutilation tend to condescend to it like it’s a superficial problem, and thus an easy one to fix (After all, how hard could it be to simply not cut oneself?). Another is that teens who participate in it feel utterly belittled by this sentiment, in addition to feeling belittled by the personal embarrassment that they feel toward their activities, in further addition to whatever deeper troubles they’re experiencing that are causing them to self-mutilate in the first place. It’s such a multilayered problem that there’s absolutely no comfortable way to bring it up. Fortunately, Blade Silver is a step in the right direction, a (mostly) good book to hand to (most) anyone who either is or knows a cutter, and wants to overcome that.


Blade Silver is a quick, easy read (in terms of writing style), but its real strength is found in Carlson’s handling of its subject matter. Carlson treats Ruth and her problems with respect. This book isn’t an afterschool special where Ruth cuts herself once and then dies to teach readers that cutting is bad. It’s a believable look at a teenage girl whose life reflects that of many teens in similar situations. It’s by no means a comfortable read.  Ruth’s father made me wince every time he spoke, and the descriptions of Ruth’s cutting process were visceral enough to make me cringe. Some objection has been raised about the latter element, reasonably, as the novel could be easily taken as a how-to manual for cutting by the reader who wishes to interpret it that way. The relevant scenes are as specific as to detail the clever methods Ruth uses to hide her razors, what depth of cut she finds to produce the best result, etc., and this is important to keep in mind when recommending the book to a teen who might be inclined to cut. However, overshadowing this darker element is the book’s realistic representation of the tensions experienced by a self-mutilating teen. It’s genuine enough that a sympathetic reader could—even without finishing the book—understand the anxieties that would make a teen want to voluntarily harm herself. The book also closes with a Reader’s Guide that features questions useful for encouraging critical thinking about the many facets of Ruth’s conflict, which is ultimately the purpose of this book—to let cutters know that there is hope to be found outside cutting, and to show those around cutters what goes through a cutter’s mind.


Still, for all its positive points, the book does have some problems. Ruth is the only well-developed character in this novel, but that’s excusable, being that it’s a story about her personal struggle in a book intended to help teens fight their way through their own similar struggle. A bit less excusable is the ending, in which Ruth finds God and then goes home to a situation that is distinctly happier than her previous one. Granted, this seems like an absurd thing to say about a Christian book written by one of the most prolific YA Christian authors out there, but in the context of the story itself, this ending feels entirely out of place. A few references are made to God early in the novel, mostly in a “My friend is Christian, but I don’t know much about it” way on Ruth’s part, and 98% of the book is spent focusing on Ruth’s personal struggle, not her religious beliefs (or lack of them). The book doesn’t even read like a conspicuously Christian book until its last 2%, when God swoops in like a literal deus ex machina and solves many of Ruth’s problems. Christian readers will not have a problem with this, but so much of the book’s hopeful ending is rooted in Ruth’s abrupt discovery of God that non-Christian readers are likely to feel defeated by it (especially the non-Christian readers who were looking for an actual solution to a problem they might be going through themselves). The ending is not entirely rainbows and unicorns, as Ruth does acknowledge that she still has some work to do if she’s to stop cutting entirely, but I would have liked it to offer a more grounded solution, in addition to Ruth’s spiritual awakening.


Ultimately, though, Blade Silver provides a solid look into the mind of a teen self-mutilator, and despite its mostly fairy tale ending, offers valuable food for thought, no matter what relation the reader has to its subject matter.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Jennifer's Book Review: Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught


Jamie Carcaterra is fat. Not chunky, curvy, obese or fluffy. She’s fat. At least, that’s what she tells you in her weekly Fat Girl column, published in The Wire, her school newspaper. The feature, designed (she hopes) to help her win a scholarship contest, begins with some myth debunking:

“Myth Number One: Speak gently to poor Fat Girl. She can’t help her terrible disability.

“Myth Number Two: Poor Fat Girl needs to be educated about her problem.

“Myth Number Three: Poor Fat Girl laughs to hide her tears.

“Myth Number Four: Poor lonely Fat Girl can’t get a date.

“Myth Number Five: All poor Fat Girl wants to do is lose weight.”

But Fat Girl’s column spins Jamie’s life in directions she couldn’t expect, especially when she begins chronicling the gastric bypass surgery of her boyfriend, Burke. In addition to gaining nationwide recognition and being accused of “disregarding a national public health crisis,” Jamie must navigate the waters of high school, friendships and relationships.

Despite her claims that life doesn’t revolve around her size, Jamie, who wears a size 5X, is very aware about how it impacts every aspect of her existence, from concern about whether she’s sweaty-stinky to stress over the thought that one day her boyfriend will be smaller than she is. Not being able to shop in the same stores with friends, having people judge you for eating lunch, and other slights and mistreatments are obstacles that Jamie has to handle. She points out that fat discrimination is the last socially acceptable form of discrimination because it’s always assumed that anyone who is overweight is willfully unhealthy and unwilling to do anything to fix it.

“I’m not eating. I haven’t eaten in front of people since fifth grade, when I got tired of the staring, even from the teachers. When I was younger, I used to throw fits and scream, or cry and try to explain that even though I was fat, I still had to eat a meal here and there. Then, slowly, I got to where I just didn’t feel hungry if other people were around to watch.” (p.14)

Author Susan Vaught manages to realistically portray concerns and issues that many overweight people deal with every day. She throws in some amazing (horrifying) facts about gastric bypass surgery – how it’s performed, the high mortality rate (one in 200 die on the table or right after, one in twenty after the first year), and details about dumping and frothing (some very gross things that patients often go through after surgery). [Side note regarding the mortality rates:  I looked it up and the numbers vary depending upon what source you’re looking at. No matter where you’re looking, however, the number of deaths caused by complications is high.]

Many readers who have struggled with their weight and/or weight-loss will be able to identify with Fat Girl, although her in-your-face attitude might turn some off initially. Jamie is unapologetic, funny and, on the surface, happy in her skin. Once you dig a little deeper – into the book and into Jamie’s mind – Jamie’s outlook makes more sense, as she struggles to shrug off hurtful, unthinking words from friends, family and even her doctors. Big Fat Manifesto is not just about Jamie’s weight and Burke’s surgery. It’s about the bonds of friendship and the struggle to speak up for what’s right, with a bit of unexpected romance sprinkled in. Big Fat Manifesto might not be a great novel, but it’s a good novel, and it can be an eye opener to the discrimination that continues to be acceptable in today’s world toward the overweight.

[Fun note: Big Fat Manifesto was a 2010 South Carolina Young Adult Book Award nominee.]


Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Travis' Book Review: Batman and Robin by Grant Morrison

After reading Batman and Robin, it’s easy to see why DC Comics decided to relaunch its entire 52 publication roster. The universe that DC comics created over the past decade had become a convoluted mess of storytelling, with each writer trying to write his or her own take on different characters, while trying to connect their stories to stories that other writers had written. See? A mess! Who, except for the most die-hard comic book fans, can keep up with all of this? That said, I am a huge fan of Morrison’s All-Star Superman and his other major works like Batman: R.I.P and Final Crisis. Unlike Morrison’s take on Superman, a stand-alone work that exhibited Morrison’s creative writing talents and understanding of his subject, Batman and Robin ties in previous DC Universe events – specifically, the events of Morrison’s previous work with Batman in Final Crisis, which ended with the death of Bruce Wayne. 


Well, not really, as it turns out. Just to show how complicated the DC universe had become, another Batman series showed that he was actually just sent through time, where he fought cavemen, pirates, and solved crimes during the time of the Salem witch trials. Yes, all of that happened. All the while, in another series, the relationship of Bruce Wayne and Talia Al Ghul is explored, revealing that the two have a son name Damian, who is trained in the same assassin arts as Batman. In yet another series, the classic character Dick Grayson, formerly Robin and Nightwing, kills an evil imposter Batman and decides to take on the role of the dark knight, himself.  Now, finally, with each of those story arcs taken into account, comes Morrison’s Batman and Robin.


In this 3 volume collaboration, Dick Grayson is working under the mask as the new Batman and Bruce Wayne’s son, Damian, is working as Robin. The two caped crusaders must stop a murderous new villain known Professor Pyg, face one of Morrison’s villains from a previous series, Dr. Hurt, and learn to work together to save Gotham.  All the while, the two must investigate a mysterious new vigilante that is willing to kill criminals. To make matters worse, Grayson and Damian start uncovering clues that suggest Bruce Wayne may actually still be alive. Unlike Bruce Wayne, however, Grayson isn’t the “world’s greatest detective,” and unlike Grayson, the new Boy Wonder is showing signs that he, too, is willing to kill – especially when the infamous villain, the Joker,  reveals his own twisted plans.


Unlike his work with “man of steel” in All-Star Superman, Morrison isn’t trying to recapture the glory of the silver age of comics with the new version of Batman and Robin.  He is writing a continuation of current storylines. Since much of the foundation for this work is his own contributions to the DC universe, Morrison has a firm grasp of the world he is working with, and still adds the kind of storytelling elements that make him one of the best modern comic writers.  The problem is that even though the writer has a grasp on the current characters, the readers might not. In the classic conception of the dynamic duo, Robin is perceived as the fun loving, fast-talking, “Holy particle board, Batman” sidekick. It’s that Robin who now wears the mask of Morrison’s Batman. The new Robin, however, is a trained killer with a superiority complex and the serious demeanor of his father. The role-reversal allows Morrison the freedom to write complex characterizations and conflict between the two main subjects. The conflicting personalities between leader and sidekick often lead to tension between the heroes, and bad decisions are made. Fortunately for the reader, bad decisions create plot points, climaxes, and require resolutions – and these two heroes make a lot of bad decisions. At one point, for example, Damian decides to tackle an entire gang of villains by himself, but ends up with a broken spine. At another point, Grayson tries to reanimate Bruce Wayne’s dead body, but it turns out to be an evil clone that wants to kill him, instead.


The two do learn to work together, eventually, but the events that lead up to that point are so complex and reliant on source material, that I can’t recommend it to a casual reader. The murderous clone was from Final Crisis, one villain is from R.I.P, and another villain is from Death in the Family, written nearly 25 years ago. Morrison is a serious writer, and his comic storylines read under the assumption that the readers are familiar with these past works, among many others. The beauty of All-Star Superman is that it reimagines and recaptures the magnificence of a classic character, while making him accessible to everyone. The most disappointing thing about Batman and Robin is that it does not. Yes, the series is still a new take on an old franchise, but without prior knowledge of the complex universe of DC comics and the events leading up to the creation of the series, it is easy to get lost. Overall, I personally enjoyed the series and appreciate what Morrison did with his characters, but the series is a small piece in a much larger puzzle. Serious comic book fans will enjoy it, but casual readers will be left confused.  

Friday, January 04, 2013

Susan's Book Review: The Crimson Crown by Cinda Williams Chima


The Crimson Crown is the fourth and final book in the Seven Realms series that stars young Queen Raisa and streetlord turned wizard/bodyguard/hero, Han Alister. Chima does a wonderful job putting her characters in difficult situations and having them rise to the occasion. It’s been fun watching Raisa grow into a just and strong Queen who can make hard choices and stand up for what’s right, no matter the price (which is sometimes very high—like her-sister’s-life high). I love a good underdog story and they don’t get much better than Han’s rags to riches tale. It was gratifying to see all of his hard work and suffering pay off. For probably 75% of the book, their stories happen independently of each other. I enjoy that well enough, but what I really love is the 25% where they get to interact. Finally, a couple in teen literature where I’m shown why they love each other, instead of just being told they do!


A lot happens in this last book—Raisa is working hard as Queen, Han is still her bodyguard and sleeping in the next room (much to nearly everyone’s confused chagrin), Han’s not only on the Wizard Council, he’s gotten himself elected High Wizard, the gifted are being killed for their amulets in Ragmarket, Lord Bayer is confronted by his illegitimate half-breed son, and Han trusts Crow enough to let him possess his body to gain access to the Armory of the Gifted Kings. Whew! All of the stories come together at the end as Raisa is betrayed and the Queendom comes under attack. The wizards and clans haven’t coexisted peacefully for ages and now the best chance they have at survival is to work together. Nearly all of the characters we’ve met during the course of the series are involved and there’s something for everyone--politics, strategy, allegiances, love, old laws, magic, lies—there’s even a dog!


Overall, Chima was kind to her characters and I’m surprised so many of them lived. I was waiting for one of my favorites to fall, but I only cried once and it was over a minor character who met a sad end. I was afraid Raisa would have to marry for the good of the kingdom and not for love, but she and Han end up together, so THANK YOU, Ms. Chima. I’m also super pleased that Micah Bayar turned out to be a good guy. I thought he was only playing like he was to get Raisa, but it seems the bigger twist is that he was truly in love with her all along and just a pawn in his father’s sinister plans. I missed the chemistry between Raisa and Amon, but understand that things have changed and enjoy how they’ve transformed their romantic love into a loyal/friendship type of love.
I hope Chima finds a way back to this cast of characters someday. She built a very rich and detailed world and I’m sure there are stories yet to tell. For instance, I would love to read this same story from Micah’s point of view!

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Emily's Book Review: Son by Lois Lowry


If you haven’t yet read The Giver by Lois Lowry, stop reading this review right now, and go read that book instead.  Published in 1993, The Giver has been a staple in English classrooms and on teens’ bookshelves ever since, and some adults still regard it as a masterpiece of dystopian literature.  It tells the story of Jonas, a boy in a society where families are chosen for children after they are born, careers are chosen for young adults at age twelve, and where war and pain have been eliminated through the introduction of “sameness.”  Rather than receiving an ordinary career assignment, Jonas is selected to be the “Receiver of Memory,” and throughout the course of the book, readers watch as he discovers what life used to be for his community.  There was pain, strife, and even hunger, but there were also celebrations, true families, and love—things Jonas has never experienced before. 


Near the end of The Giver, Jonas finds out that a baby his family has been helping to nurture is about to be “released.” Baby Gabriel has failed to thrive; therefore, the Elders have decided, he cannot be placed with parents and cannot continue to exist.  Horrified, Jonas decides to leave the Community forever and take Gabriel with him, and the novel ends ambiguously, with readers not knowing whether Jonas and Gabriel die or find another community in which to live.


For years, young readers have asked Lois Lowry, “What happens to Jonas?” and until now, she has not fully answered the question.  In the past, Lowry has published Gathering Blue and Messenger, books which allude to the world of The Giver and its characters but aren’t true sequels.   Lowry had never intended to answer all the questions her fans had asked, but with Son, that is exactly what she does, finally writing a book that will satisfy two generations worth of curiosity.


Son follows the story of Claire, the fourteen-year old girl who gives birth to Gabriel.  At the beginning of the story, Nurturers take him from her and assign her to a new position in the Community, assuming she will soon forget her young son.  But she doesn’t.  At first, she finds ways to go to the Nurturing Center during all her spare moments to visit him, and, after she finds out that he has been taken from the community, she gets on a ship and leaves the Community, determined to spend her life find a way to reunite with her son.


The village Claire soon finds herself in is a community vastly different from her own.  There she meets an old woman who takes her in as her own and teaches her about all the parts of life that were missing in her old community.  There, she has a pet, attends wedding celebrations, helps heal the sick, and learns to recognize colors for the first time.  She even meets a young man who cares about her and wants to help her learn.  Still, Claire cannot forget Gabriel, and so she decides that she must leave the sense of family and safety she has found in this little village in order to finally find her son.


In many ways, Son mirrors and finalizes The Giver perfectly, as it builds on many themes from the earlier book.  Like The Giver, Son emphasizes originality and free choice, and like Jonas, the fact that Claire’s experience is different from the rest of the Community’s causes her to realize that the ideal, painless life she thought she was living is far from perfect.  In many ways, Claire’s story is even more gut-wrenching than Jonas’, because the Community has taken her child from her, a child they never expected her to meet or care for or love.  I also thought the story was interesting because readers see the Community through the eyes of an older character.  As a fourteen year-old, Claire is considered an adult, and no longer lives in her parents’ home.  In fact, since they have raised her, they are no longer considered her parents—a concept I found frightening, since Claire is literally thought to belong to no one for the remainder of her adolescence in the Community.


As a sequel, Son was interesting, because it tells the story of The Giver from a different perspective.  Though it still answers the question “What happened to Jonas?”, the book is told from Claire’s point of view and actually begins before The Giver starts, while Claire is in the delivery room.  I found this a fascinating way for Lowry to tell the next piece of the story.  Not only do we see what happens next when Claire goes on the journey to find her son; we also get to experience the world of The Giver from the perspective of an ordinary Community member.  While Jonas is undeniably special (a “Receiver of Memory” is only chosen once in several generations), Claire’s chosen assignment is birthmother—a profession that is considered one of the least noble in the whole Community.  Before her son is taken, she is only vaguely aware of Jonas’s existence, and in the meantime, readers watch as she lives her life as a normal Community member.  We watch as she lives in her dormitory, works at her ordinary assignment at the fish hatcheries, eats meals with her co-workers, and forms shallow, surface-level friendships with them.  As a reader, I truly got a sense of how boring and superficial life is for an ordinary character in the world of these stories—and how far members of the Community have been brainwashed to not want more.


Like Gathering Blue, Son is also interesting because it explores an alternate location that is outside the Community but is still a part of the same obviously futuristic world.  The village Claire finds herself in when she leaves the Community is probably the most pleasant setting that is introduced in books related to The Giver.  Located over a cliff by the sea, this village is far removed from technology or modern medicine, yet features many things that have been lost or done away with in the Community.  Claire sees animals there for the first time in her life, and to the surprise of the woman who takes her in, she has to be taught the concept of yellow and red and blue, as she has never seen colors before.  The village is quaint—with town-wide wedding celebrations and little girls playing tea-party by the sea.  Of course, Claire eventually leaves this village and goes on to find her son, but it is interesting to consider how all these worlds inside the larger world of the books might fit together.


In short, I would recommend Son (along with Gathering Blue, Messenger, and especially The Giver) to everyone.  Adults and children alike can enjoy these stories and appreciate the skill with which Lowry has written them.  Furthermore, dystopian stories such as this one can go a long way toward making us appreciate our own messed-up, imperfect world, full of pain and strife and family and love.