• Book Review

    Book Review: Spellbound by Christopher Pike

    Christopher Pike was one of my treasured authors back in high school. I had a collection of his horror/thriller/suspense-themed paperback novels and I always had one on me. I read them over and over, studying the character development, re-reading to see if I could figure out the red herrings drop along the way. Somewhere, during one of my many moves after high school, I lost the entire collection. I probably couldn’t fit a box of books into my car and donated them, but now that a lot of these are out of print, I’m really regretting that. I found a small stack of them a few years ago at a library book sale and snatched them up. After reading Spellbound again recently, I decided to put my thoughts about it down in a blog post.

    Synopsis:

    No one knew how the girl had died.

    They found Karen Holly in the mountain stream, her skull crushed. There was only one witness to the tragedy, Karen’s boyfriend, Jason Whitfield. He said a grizzly had killed her. But a lot of people didn’t believe him. They thought Jason had murdered her in a fit of rage.

    And now weeks have passed, and Jason has another girlfriend, Cindy Jones. And there are the new kids in

     town, Joni Harper, the quiet English beauty that Cindy’s brother, Alex, cannot get out of his mind. And Bala, the foreign exchange student from Africa, the grandson of a powerful shaman.

    Together they will return to the place where Karen was killed.

    Some will die.

    The others will come face to face with a horror beyond imagining.

    Review:

    I needed a break this week so I plucked this off my YA collection of books on my shelf. I read the back, and as I flipped through the first few pages, the story started to come back to me. (Full disclosure: I know I had to have read this book more than 20 times in my teens!) I remembered who the “monster” was pretty quickly, but couldn’t remember how “they” got that way. The main parts of the book take place in a state park near a waterfall, and I got fatigued after a while reading about how the characters continually kept going back to that spot for meet-ups and dates, especially after it became clear that something wild and murdurous was on the loose up there.

    I loved the relationship between siblings Cindy and Alex, as the novel goes back and forth from their perspectives. However, they both were a little too bold for their own good, and both ended up falling into the turbulent river at two different times, leaving me shaking my head a bit. Jason was also a bit of a caricature–rich, good looking, football player and most of all, a jerk. My favorite character was Bala, the grandson of the shaman, as I felt Pike really nailed his mannerisms and dialogue. Also, I kind of laughed a bit that you NEVER saw Cindy and Alex’s parents at their house. They were always out working at the hardware store they own, but it made me wonder if that was meant to raise suspicion in the reader or if Pike just didn’t really want to deal with character development for them. They are only mentioned in passing as “still being a the store,” or “working at inventory” at the store. As a teen I doubt this even crossed my mind, but reading it as a grown adult, I picked up on it right away.

    Now I’m on to reading another old Pike favorite, Remember Me. It’s narrated by a ghost, which is funny, because I also wrote a book in the same fashion. I also came across this article about Christopher Pike’s novels, but the blogger didn’t have Spellbound on the list.

    *Note: Christopher Pike’s older novels are out of print, and there is one copy of this book for sale on Amazon for $71. Wow. I’m holding on to my copy. Also, I may be revealing a bit of my discerning nature here, but I’ve often wondered if Christopher Pike was a pen name for another author, as there is not a whole lot of information about the man out there and even fewer photos. He could write a lot of books, though, and he kept me entertained in my teens along with Lois Duncan, so I have no issue with it.

  • Book Review

    Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

    Synopsis:

    From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class.

    Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis – that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over 40 years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.

    The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.

    But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, his aunt, his uncle, his sister, and most of all his mother struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

    A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.

    Review:

    I really, really wanted to like this book. I got excited just reading the nine-page introduction and remember excitedly telling my husband about it on the day I started the memoir. Coming from humble beginnings myself, I felt like I would be able to relate to Vance’s story, although I grew up in rural Texas and North Carolina and not Kentucky/Ohio.

    But really, the comparison ended there. Vance’s memoir begins with the story of his origins (his grandparents) and follows a pretty linear timeline. It was hard to feel empathy for his mother, who dragged her two kids in and out of so many relationships that I almost lost count of the men in Vance’s life. I believe she was married at least five times, and eventually became addicted to heroin. The figure he looked up to the most was his paternal grandmother, or “Mamaw,” as he called her, but I have to say I took issue with her language and demeanor. I understand she grew up in the backwoods of Kentucky and was married and pregnant before she was even the legal age to drive a car, but her “colorful” language and roughneck behavior did not strike me as someone who should be a role model for any young child. I can’t even repeat some of the things she said to family members and her grandchildren because I found them so offensive. This made it hard for me to read chapter after chapter of how wonderful “Mamaw” was and how his years living with her changed his life. (His grandparents never divorced but stopped living in the same residence by the time Vance was in his teens). I found myself wondering over and over what the point of the memoir is. The book has the subtitle “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” and while Vance did discuss the mentality of many of the working class that reside in the area he grew up in (there’s a sense of entitlement without the work ethic to back it up), I felt like he circled around the topic without giving any substance.

    I do have a great deal of respect that Vance realized after being accepted to Ohio State University that he didn’t have the maturity he needed to successfully complete college, thus leading to an enlistment in the Marine Corps first instead. He also completed college pretty quickly once he began his courses, then heading off to Yale Law School. But I found my mind drifting during the chapters where he attended Yale. He didn’t seem to know why he wanted to attend law school, other than the fact that all the successful people he knew from his hometown were either doctors or lawyers, and he didn’t like blood. I don’t even think he is still a practicing lawyer, as the bio on the book jacket says he is now an investor in a venture capital firm. I read some other reviews before writing this one, trying to pinpoint why I found myself skimming the last chapter of the memoir by the end. I think one reviewer nailed it by saying she felt Vance’s prose lacked the color and authenticity one would expect from someone who grew up in the Rust Belt, with childhood memories of Appalachia. Vance went through the motion of detailing his story, but he never plumbs into the depths of how running from his mother on a country road, in fear for his life, or having to pay for her extended stay at a motel after she relapsed into drugs again, really made him feel. What the reader gets is a memoir that reads more like a term paper. And while that may be okay for some, it leaves the reader wanting.

  • Book Review

    Book Review: Girl Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis

    I can’t remember exactly how I stumbled upon the powerhouse that is Rachel Hollis. It may have been on Jen Hatmaker’s For the Love podcast. Lately, I’ve been finding so many interesting people on podcasts! Anyway, I was inspired by Rachel’s story. She graduated early from high school, decided not to attend college, and instead headed to Los Angeles to conquer her dreams and marry Matt Damon! The last part didn’t really work out but she did find a man of her dreams (David Hollis) and kicked off a successful career in event planning, wedding planning, and is now an entrepreneur, author, motivational speaker, and creator of Chic Media.

    After following Rachel on social media, I kept hearing about her latest book, Girl, Wash Your Face. The title intrigued me. When I heard that it was a motivational book geared towards women I was also intrigued. I was going through a slump in my life at the time where I felt like I sucked as a writer, in my professional career in marketing, and generally in life.

    So I picked up the book one day while in Target. And I’m glad I did. Rachel’s writing voice is just like the voice you hear on her blog, Instagram feed, and in clips from her conferences and speaking engagements. She is authentic. She is blunt. She is encouraging. She made me feel like I am worthy of my dreams, and anyone else’s opinion of me isn’t my business. Wow.

    The book basically follows 20 different lies she tells herself and why they aren’t true. Most of these related to me (although instead of wanting to marry Matt Damon, I may have had my eye more on his buddy Ben Affleck). These lies include things like “I’ll Start Tomorrow” or “I Am Defined by My Weight” or “I Need a Hero.” I think I especially loved the chapter titled “I Need to Make Myself Smaller.” It actually inspired this blog post over at WOW! Women on Writing.

    When I got to the chapter on “I’m a Terrible Writer,” these words struck me the most:

    When you’re creating something from your heart, you do it because you can’t NOT do it. You produce it because you believe your creation deserves to be out in the world. . . But you can’t MAKE people like or understand it.

    I feel like this a lot. Sometimes I feel like people think I’m strange because I’m obsessed with true crime and missing persons cases. But that’s where my passion lies, along with writing literature for teens. Since I read Girl, Wash Your Face, I have been so productive it’s not even funny. I’ve written a new short story and submitted it to a contest. I dragged an old YA manuscript out and have been line editing it so I can start querying agents. I picked myself up after an abysmal critique from a freelance editor on a second YA manuscript and am trying to figure out to make the opening sing and not bore people. I’m seeking out opportunities in professional development to help me succeed in my day job in theatre marketing. I’m ON FIRE!

    So if you need a good dose of motivation, I recommend you check out this book. It worked for me, and I’m passing it along to a friend I’m seeing tomorrow night. I hope she enjoys it as much as I did.

  • Book Review

    Book Review: Crossing the Line by Ellen Valladares

    When I got the e-mail about Ellen Valladares and the blog tour for her new YA novel, Crossing the Line, I jumped at the chance to review the book. A teenage girl ghost from the 1980s? A mystery? A young journalist as the protagonist? I couldn’t not check out the book, as these are themes near and dear to my own heart.

    Thanks to Crystal Otto with WOW! Blog Tours for offering me the chance to participate! You can check out an interview with the author here.

    About the book:

    Laura, who died thirty years ago, enlists the help of a tenacious high school reporter named Rebecca, who is very much alive. Rebecca, although skeptical and conflicted by her supposed encounters with a spirit, determines to learn the truth about Laura’s tragic death. As the clues unravel and their worlds collide, Rebecca finds herself at a dangerous crossroads.

    Laura, now pulled back into everything she left behind when she died – her old high school and memories of her life and death—has been in training for this exact moment. And nothing means more to her than succeeding at her assignment.

    It is her one chance to make sure that what happened to her does not happen to anyone else, and especially not to her new friend, Rebecca.

    About the author:

    Ellen Wolfson Valladares is an award-winning writer/author, workshop facilitator, community volunteer, and mother. A native Floridian, she grew up in St. Petersburg and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the University of Florida. She has worked as an editor, public relations professional, and freelance writer. Her first book, a children’s novel entitled Jonathan’s Journey to Mount Miapu, received several awards, including a Mom’s Choice Gold Award and the 2009 Coalition of Visionary Resources Visionary Awards Book of the Year award. She also has a meditation CD, entitled “Healing and Manifestation with the Archangels.”
    Today, Valladares continues to work as a freelance writer. She also enjoys coaching high school students working on their college essays and helping other writers realize their dreams. She has been married to her husband, Manny, for 30 years and they have two sons, Gabriel and Michael, two dogs, Flash and Chili Pepper, and a crazy cat named Zelda. They live in Weston, Fla.

    Paperback: 300 pages

    Genre: Fiction/Young Adult

    Publisher: WiDO (March 2018)

    ISBN-13: 978-1-937178-99-4

    Review:

    This book had everything I enjoy in a novel–relatable characters, paranormal elements, mystery, romance and a time period the features the  music and fashion I adored.  But Crossing the Line turned out to be so much more than that.

    I knew from the opening pages that there was more to Laura’s death than met the eye. Through alternating chapters, the reader is able to learn more about the character of Laura, and her murder at the hands of a female classmate. Throughout the course of the novel, Laura is a student at “The Academy,” or how the author presents the Afterlife. As she learns various ways she can reconnect with the living, she also receives a mission that requires her to reach out to a modern-day student at her former high school, Rebecca.

    When Rebecca first makes contact with Laura through a Ouija Board (remember those?), she is understandably frightened. But through her sleuthing skills and help of her journalism teacher, she starts to investigate Laura’s death and her long-standing feud with the girl who murdered her, Katie.

    Valldares is a masterful writer and plotter, and I enjoyed reading the story through the alternating chapters of Laura and Rebecca’s voices. She skillfully tied the characters of the early 1980s to present day (I won’t get into too much here but there were plenty of surprises on that front!) and I could easily understand how a teenage boy could could cause friction among two female students. The mission Laura is on is also woven into the novel in a way that flowed seamlessly.

    And not to give too much away, but I was also glad to have the chance to hear from the character of Katie herself, but I won’t reveal exactly how.

    I look forward to sharing this book with  my own teenage daughter. I know she’ll love it.

     

  • Book Review

    Book Review: Ashes in the Ocean by Sebastian Slovin

    Today I’m hosting author Sebastian Slovin in support of his touching memoir, Ashes in the Ocean: A Son’s Story of Living Through and Learning From His Father’s Suicide, during his blog tour with WOW! Women on Writing.

    Here’s what you need to know about the book:

    Vernon Slovin was a legend. He was one of the best swimmers in his home country of South Africa, and for a time in the world. He prided himself on being the best. The best in sports, business, and life. He had it all, a big home, athletic prestige, fancy clothes and cars, and a beautiful wife and family. Everything was going his way until it all came tumbling down. He lost everything, including his own life. In the wake of his suicide he left his wife and two young children.

    In this riveting memoir, Vernon’s son, Sebastian Slovin chronicles his experience of living in the shadow of a suicide, and his journey out of the darkness and into the light. Slovin shares his quest to uncover why his father took his own life. A pilgrimage that led him around the world and eventually back to himself.

    Ashes in the Ocean is a powerful story about facing one’s fears and choosing a different path.

    Paperback: 222 pages
    Genre: Memoir
    Publisher: Nature Unplugged (March 2018)
    ISBN-10: 978-0-692-05119-1
    ISBN-13: 978-0692051191

    About the Author:

    Since he can remember, nature has been a central part of Sebastian’s life. He was fortunate to grow up in the beach community of La Jolla, California, and spent his childhood mixing it up in the ocean. As a young boy, he lost his father to suicide, which would later deeply inspire his path in life. As a young adult, he had the opportunity to travel extensively and experience many of the world’s great surf spots as a professional bodyboarder. Through his travel, Sebastian developed a deep love and appreciation for our natural world, and at the same time was drawn to the practice of yoga.

    His love for yoga led him to study at Prana Yoga Center in La Jolla, California, and his passion for nature eventually led him to pursue a BA in Environment and Natural Resource Conservation at San Diego State University. He also holds an MA in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego.

    He lives with his wife Sonya in Encinitas, California. He and Sonya have a business called Nature Unplugged, which focuses on cultivating wellness through healthier relationships with technology and a deeper connection to nature. When he is not writing or working on Nature Unplugged, Sebastian enjoys swimming, bodysurfing, surfing, and stand-up paddling (pretty much all things) in the wild Pacific Ocean. Find Sebastian Online:

    Website: www.sebastianslovin.com

    Amazon Author Profile:  https://www.amazon.com/Sebastian-Slovin/e/B078XN8XZL

    Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SebastianSlovinAuthor/

    Twitter: https://twitter.com/sebastianslovin

    Review:

    From the opening pages of Ashes in the Ocean, I was pulled into Sebastian Slovin’s personal and heartfelt memoir. My heart raced as I read through the description of a popular annual swimming race in California and how Vernon Slovin would deliberately enter the heat of the race with the younger competitors just to challenge himself. I could easily picture his beautiful young family cheering him on from the cliffs above. The scene is the perfect way to introduce the determined, physically fit man constantly seeking perfection and the acknowledgement that he was the best at anything he set his mind to.

    There are some people who are born to be one with the water, and Vernon Slovin was one of them. He passed this legacy down to his son, Sebastian. The description of the ocean waves and pristine beaches in picturesque La Jolla, California throughout the book made me want to transport myself there—as did the later chapters featuring beaches in Australia and South Africa.

    Because his father’s suicide occurred when he was only six years old, it was many years before Sebastian had the context in which to explore the dynamics in his father’s personality that would lead to such a catastrophic end. For years he and his mother and younger sister struggled to pick up the pieces, to survive without the sheltered and prosperous world Vernon Slovin had tried to insulate them in.

    Although he was young when his father took his own life while staying with family in Australia, Sebastian grew up hesitant to discuss “the elephant in the room” with his mother for fear of opening up old wounds. He also feared, deep down, that because of his genetics and history of his father’s mental illness he too would have no choice but to succumb to a suicidal end.

    Once in high school, though, Sebastian continued to cycle through the emotions many deal with after losing a loved one to suicide—confusion, guilt, and anger. To help process his lingering questions, Sebastian embarked on personal research project in the hopes of filling in the unanswered questions he had about his father’s life and death. With much of the dogged determination his own father had possessed, he met with his father’s former swim teammates, friends, and business partners. With each e-mail, conversation, and long-distance correspondence, he learned more and more about the competitive swimmer who was recruited from South Africa to compete at the college level in the United States.

    Vernon took the same skills and drive that made him successful in swimming and translated that to his business life. During one of Sebastian’s interviews with one of his father’s friends, he started to understand that his father had an almost unhealthy obsession with “winning” and achieving his goals. He would shut out everything else while he worked to achieve them. Because of this obsession, he didn’t know what to do when he failed, which he ended up doing in his career as a stockbroker.

    It’s clear both the legacy of his father and the shadow of his death affected Sebastian in more ways than one. He shared the same passion for water, and competed for many years in professional bodyboarding at beaches all over the world. When he discovered yoga, he became convinced he had to be the very best teacher and took all the certifications necessary to become a master instructor. It was only while sidelined after a serious hip surgery (where he re-injured himself after trying to get back in shape too quickly) that he realized he was following directly in his father’s footsteps once again.

    Sebastian’s memoir is a thoughtful exploration of the deep ties we have to family and how we must shape our own destinies, regardless of what we think are the legacies left behind for us.

  • Book Review,  cookbooks

    Book Review: Skinnytaste Fast and Slow

    I don’t know about you, but I discover many great recipes on social media channels. Someone will share a recipe or I’ll see one of those cooking videos that makes preparing a dish look so easy that I’ll seek out the blog or Facebook page it originated from. That’s how I found Gina Homolka and Skinnytaste.

     

    I can’t remember which recipe of hers I tried first, but I love how she uses real food ingredients in her dishes and includes the Weight Watchers points for anyone who may be on the program. She also has many slow cooker offerings. I’ve saved many of her recipes and cooking videos on Facebook and Instagram, so when I came across the Skinnytaste Fast and Slow cookbook a few months ago while browsing in our local independent bookstore I made an impulse buy. It didn’t disappoint. Skinnytaste Fast and Slow: Knockout Quick-Fix and Slow Cooker Recipes includes 140 dishes that can be made in a slow cooker, in the oven or on the stovetop.

    At the beginning of the book, Homolka explains her cooking philosophy–she loves eating decadent and savory foods but doesn’t want to sabotage the results of her fitness routine. That’s what led her to experiment with different dishes that could be full of flavor but still healthy. She also gives tips on how to successfully get dinner on the table even in the midst of a hectic schedule. For example, stock your pantry with seasonings and spices, baking products, canned and jarred goods, prep for the week with meal planning (she also sells her own meal planner to help with this), how to freeze certain dishes, etc. She also provides advice on how to prepare delicious meals quickly and slow cooker secrets. Plus, there’s a handy chart with a month full of meals to get you started.

    I’m still working my way through the cookbook but so far we’ve loved pretty much everything we’ve tried and I haven’t even attempted any of the breakfast or dessert recipes yet!

    Some personal favorites out of Skinnytaste Fast and Slow:

    Slow Cooker Beef Ragu Pappardelle (we served this to some dinner guests a few weeks ago and they loved it)

    Chicken and Zucchini Noodles with Black Bean Sauce

    Zesty Lime Shrimp and Avocado Salad

    Slow Cooker Lasagna Soup

    Easiest One-Pot Pasta and Broccoli

    Chicken Scaloppine with Broccoli and Melted Mozzarella

  • Book Review,  writing inspiration

    Book Review: The Rules of Half

    (This article originally ran in the September 2017 issue of Lake Norman CURRENTS.)

    When Sherrill’s Ford resident Jenna Patrick first got the idea for her debut novel, “The Rules of Half,” she was juggling the demands of a career in engineering and the schedules of her two daughters, who are both competitive gymnasts. She says it took her about a year to finish the first draft of the book, which centers around a family dealing with mental illness set in small-town America. While Patrick’s path to publication was different than she first imagined it, she couldn’t be happier with the reception of her novel.

    She says she first got the idea for the story after reading a newspaper article about an accidental death in a family, and wondering if she would be able to live with herself personally if something similar happened to her. She has also struggled with depression in the past and has had family members also deal with mental illness. After finishing the novel, hiring an independent editor sending out queries to agents and publishing houses, she learned about SparkPress, an independent publishing company (and imprint of Ingram Publisher Services) that specializes in merging the traditional publishing model with new and innovative strategies.

    Redbook has listed “The Rules of Half” as one of “10 Books You Have to Read this Summer” and she has also received reviews from Kirkus, Buzzfeed, “Working Mother,” Popsugar and SheKnows. In addition, while promoting the novel, she published essays with “Harper’s Bazaar” and “First For Women.”

    Patrick says she always loved writing but wasn’t sure she would be able to sustain a good career taking the English major route.

    “As time went on I missed it so much,” she says. “For me, it’s a great release. If I’m stressed, I write. It soothes me. A page became a chapter, and a chapter became a book. It helps me. It’s complex and there are a lot of different things going on at once and my engineering background helps.” She likes to work on outlining and plotting using the software program Scrivener and Excel spreadsheets.

    Patrick is working on her next novel, while continuing to work as an engineer three days a week and drive her daughters to their practices and competitions, many of which are out of town. She always credits her husband for making sure she has time to write when she needs it.

    To learn more about Jenna Patrick, visit jennapatricknovels.com.

    Review:

    Will was his Bipolar Disorder.

    But it was easier not to argue over a technicality, so instead Will thought of happier times. He thought of swimming in Half Moon Creek and picnics afterword at the dam. He thought of his mother’s homemade, blueberry pie and his father’s old transistor radio crackling in the background. He thought of a time when he was just little Will Fletcher–future wide receiver for the Half Moon Howlers. Not crazy Will Fletcher–the example parents cite to their children when explaining the meaning of stranger danger.

    I was working on this assignment when my family took our annual beach vacation this year, and was fortunate to have an advance copy of the novel with me. I was hooked in no time. The cast of characters in the fictional town of Half Moon Hollow are written with depth, and Patrick expertly peels away the layers to prove to the readers that things aren’t always what they seem. Fifteen-year-old Regan Whitmer is escaping the controlling eye of her step-father, mourning the loss of her mother, and seeking out the biological father she has  never known. Unbeknownst to her, that father, Will Fletcher, has lost  his way and fights a daily battle with bipolar disorder, made worse after a tragedy in his family. He is not exactly in proper frame of mind to meet the daughter he never knew existed, especially one who is requesting to live with him and Janey, the sister determined to keep him healthy.

    As the story unfolds, you learn more about Regan’s relationship with her mother, the guilt she is harboring, the secret Janey is keeping, and the past that Will isn’t sure he remembers clearly. Patrick does a great job pacing the story, and making the reader feel both frustrated and exhilarated while trying to unlock the mystery that remains at the core of the story. I was very impressed by the quality of this novel, as well as the uniqueness of the story and give kudos to the author and her decision to work with SparkPress. I look forward to checking out more of their titles in the future.

  • Book Review

    Book Review: Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver

    A few years ago I took my daughter to a literary festival called EpicFest in uptown Charlotte. This was yet another one of those events where I used my sweet, accommodating daughter as an excuse to go and hear one of my favorite children’s authors speak.

    Lauren Oliver has written many books I’ve enjoyed, as well as one adult novel that confused me a little bit so I’ll probably need to read it again. I’m mostly drawn to her young-adult novels such as Panic, Vanishing Girls, Replica, Before I Fall (which was adapted into a film this past year), but I picked up a copy of her middle-grade novel, Liesl and Po,  for my daughter to get autographed at the festival. I was intrigued by the premise of the novel after hearing Oliver answer a Q&A at EpicFest. She said she was inspired to write the story after the death of one of her best friends. In fact, she said she wrote it mostly as a way to process her own feelings of loss—she wasn’t actually sure the novel would be published. In the back of the book, she writes:

    The idea for the book came from a fantasy I entertained during those months: I dreamed about unearthing my friend’s ashes from the decorative wall in which they’d been interred and scattering them over the water, the only place he’d ever felt truly at peace.

    Below is the synopsis of the novel:

    Liesl lives in a tiny attic bedroom, locked away by her cruel stepmother. Her only friends are the shadows and the mice—until one night a ghost named Po appears from the darkness.

    That same evening, an alchemist’s apprentice named Will makes an innocent mistake that has tremendous consequences for Liesl and Po, and it draws the three of them together on an extraordinary journey.

    Review:

    One of the things that always impresses me about children’s novels is how deep and profound they can be. Children are resilient beings, and I think sometimes we forget that. Liesl and Po tackles some tough subjects in the way that’s reminisent of Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl or J.K. Rowling. After the death of her father (which readers soon learn was a murder) Liesl is trapped in a small attic room with only the barest scraps of food and drink (think items one might be served in a concentration camp) with only an androgynous ghost named Po to keep her company. She questions Po about what live is like “on the other side” and finally becomes motivated to escape her circumstances and take her father’s ashes to the only place where he was happiest.

    Will, the alchemist’s apprentice, also lives a hardscrabble life, as he is an orphan who is verbally (and sometimes physically) abused by the alchemist. He is also forced to skulk around in the dead of night to fetch unimaginable items such as chicken’s heads or a dead man’s beard from a local mortuary. He’s carrying a large box full of magic that is supposed to be delivered to a local wealthy woman, The Lady Premiere, who lives in a castle. When the box of magic gets mixed up with the ashes of Liesl’s fathers, well, you can imagine that the two children get caught in quite a pickle.

    The setting of this book is stark, and grey, much like the author viewed the world after the death of her friend. But slowly, through a tale of adventure and lovable characters such as Po, a ghost-animal named Bundle that could be a dog or cat, and a sweet but not-so-bright security guard named Mo (short for Molasses), the color gradually creeps back onto the pages, both literally and metaphorically. It also takes place in a setting and time period that could be anywhere and at anytime.

    The back of the book says appropriate for ages 8-12, but I would probably recommend it more for ages 10 and older, because there is so much talk of death, “the other side” and description of a crematorium and the pretty scary character of the stepmother.

  • Book Review

    Book Review: Turtles All the Way Down

    People always talk like there’s a bright line between imagination and memory, but there isn’t, at least not for me. I remember what I’ve imagined and imagine what I remember.

    I imagine this book had to have been one of the hardest to write for author John Green, because much like the main character, 16-year-old Aza, he has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.  Prior to reading this book, much of what I knew about OCD centered around behaviors I’ve seen on TV and in movies (think Jack Nicholson in “As Good as it Gets” or the clean-freak Monica in “Friends”). Turtles All the Way Down gives you a first-hand look into the mind of a person with OCD, and how those instrusive thoughts can paralyze us in our everyday lives.

    Thoughts are just a different type of bacteria, colonizing you. I thought about the gut-brain information axis. Maybe you’re already gone. The prisoners run the jail now. Not a person so much as a swarm. Not a bee, but the hive.

    Synopsis:

    Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.

    Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts. 

    This book is a much quicker read than The Fault in Our Stars but I’m not sure it’s any less painful. The characters are well drawn, except I still don’t know what Aza looked like–she never described herself nor did anyone else around her. Daisy is a wonderful comedic sidekick–tough when it’s warranted, zany in her world of Star Wars fan fiction, and forever loyal, even as frustrated as she gets with Aza. Daisy and Aza provide much of the light-hearted banter I remember from Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars. I couldn’t help but think of how much this story is the opposite of what most YA books represent. While other books have characters fussing about their parents and wanting distance, Aza and Davis both have voids in their lives in the parental department, and these voids deeply impact them.

    Green also nails how isolating having a mental illness can be. When you’re in the throes of it, you don’t want to see or talk to anyone else lest you feel the pressure to appear “normal,” but there can also be a deep crushing sadness that hits you when you feel like your “weirdness” and idiosyncrasies keep others away.

    There are many beautiful and complicated relationships in this book–Davis and his younger brother, Noah; their relationship with the missing enigmatic Russell Pickett, Daisy and Aza, Aza and Davis, Aza and her mother, etc. But, as Green writes:

    You remember your first love because they show you, prove to you, that you can love and be loved, that nothing in the world is deserved except for love, that love is both how you become a person, and why.

  • Book Review

    Book Review: Last Night at the Viper Room

    Halloween is fast approaching, and along with it is the anniversary of the death of an icon I adored in my teen years, River Phoenix. “Stand By Me” continues to be one of my favorite movies of all time. I knew vaguely of Phoenix’s background–that his parents had been “hippies” and he and his siblings lived in a commune for a while, and he didn’t eat meat. Beyond that, I guess you could say I knew what he and his management allowed the public to know. I do know I was devastated (and shocked) when I learned of his death by drug overdose during my senior year of high school.

    There was a lot we had no idea about. Times were different in the late 1980s/early 1990s. There weren’t blogs to around to share the dirty little secrets of celebrities, and paparazzi didn’t seem quite as aggressive as they do now. A few months ago I came across a show on the Reelz channel called “Autopsy: The Last Hours of River Phoenix.” I was drawn in immediately. I think what struck me the most was that River didn’t have to die in the early morning hours of Oct. 31, 1993 at the Viper Room in Hollywood. By all accounts he had been clean during the filming of his last movie, “Dark Blood,” and decided to let loose that night. He had marijuana, valium, cocaine, and pseudoephedrine in his system (he was nursing a bad cold). He went to the Viper Room in the hopes of jamming on stage with Johnny Depp and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The stage was too crowded and they couldn’t let him perform.

    Even though he wasn’t consuming alcohol that night, at some point he ingested a speedball (mixture of cocaine and heroine) in a liquid form. It was too much for his body to handle. Even though the nearest hospital was only a mile away, the group he was with didn’t want anyone to know he was on drugs, so they sat with him as he more violently ill. No one called 911 until he started seizing, and by the time the paramedics reached the club it was too late.

    One of the people interview for the Reelz program was Gavin Edwards, author of Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind. I immediately sought out the book. Edwards is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and has also written for DetailsSpin, and the New York Times Magazine. The book follows the life of Phoenix (born River Jude Bottom), from his humble early beginnings living with the questionable Children of God cult (which encouraged free love, even among young children) to his family’s decision to have their children seek fame and fortune in Hollywood.

    I love how the book is structured–it reads like one long magazine article, featuring interviews from actors/directors Phoenix worked and pulling from previous media interviews. I learned so much reading this book, and it was heartbreaking. Phoenix never had a proper education, and he had trouble relating to kids his own age because he had not spent a lot of time with them in normal social settings. He most likely had dyslexia. His first love was music. He desperately wanted to be a musician, but acting did a better job of paying the bills. His work supported his entire family–he was the breadwinner. Although he talked about being “anti-drugs” in media interviews (he was also a devout vegan), he was first exposed to drug and alcohol use in his preteens on various movie sets.

    The other thing I found interesting about Last Night at the Viper Roomwas how the author also wove in a timeline of other up and coming young actors in Hollywood (Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, etc.) and what was happening in their careers as Phoenix’s career progressed. For a pop culture junkie such as myself, this was just a bonus.

    If he had been given medical attention earlier in the evening of Oct. 30, Phoenix might not have died that night. But with the downward spiral he was on, we can’t really say if he would have lived any longer. Reading this book helped me understand how such a talented young actor could have become overwhelmed and led down the path he ended up on. I couldn’t put this book down until I finished it, and then my heart hurt for a very long time afterward.