30 June 2015

Love and Other Theories by Alexis Bass

I really wanted to love LOVE AND OTHER THEORIES. I really did.

The thing is, the writing was good. Really, really good. Every word leapt off the page, and each page left me anxious for the next one. Every chapter ended on the perfect note to make me want to read the next one. It was hard to put down. My heart was racing at times.

In the end, though, I didn't like it.

It’s a strange feeling.

In LOVE AND OTHER THEORIES, Alex and her friends have developed a set of Theories about how they should deal with boys: never get too attached, always play hard to get, don’t give anything you won’t get in return. It’s a cynical approach to high school romance that they’ve developed to avoid getting hurt, by boys and by each other.

It is, quite obviously, doomed to failure.

So when Alex meets new boy Nathan, even though sparks fly, she has to put the theories into practice. And of course, even as she’s falling in love—really, truly falling, and he’s falling for her, too—it’s inevitably going to be a train wreck.

I don’t know that I’ve ever found a set of unlikable characters so compelling. Alex and her friends—Shelby, Danica, and Melissa—were so cruel to the other people in their lives: their ex-best-friend they shunned in the most horrible way possible, the boys they refuse to admit they have feelings for, and, at times, each other.

I so hoped things would turn out differently. I hoped they would learn different lessons. But the ending left me feeling empty inside. Sad and angry. The only character I came away liking was Trip, Alex’s ex-whatever, who actually ended up being something of a gentleman, in a really surprising way.

I just don’t know what to make of this. It just really, really wasn’t up my alley. But it was certainly compelling.

Postscript: I woke up the morning after finishing this still pissed off at the characters in it. I just can’t get over how memorable the characters were, but how despicable they ended up being. And I felt like the ending of the book was asking me to forgive them for things I didn’t think they’d come anywhere close to earning forgiveness for.

It’s so strange for a book to make me feel so many things and have them all be so negative.

29 June 2015

Made You Up by Francesca Zappia

Francesca Zappia’s MADE YOU UP has been getting a lot of attention, especially after John Green made mention of it. It’s well-deserved: MADE YOU UP is an excellent story, full of voice and heart and just the right amount of crazy, if I can be forgiven for using the word.

High school senior Alex has paranoid schizophrenia. She’s been managing it with medication ever since she was eight years old and tried to free the lobsters from the grocery store. She’s not managing it well, though: she consults a Magic 8 ball for answers, does perimeter checks everywhere she goes, and still grapples with paranoia and fairly frequent hallucinations.

After spray-painting her former high school’s gymnasium with the word COMMUNISTS, she’s had to transfer for her final year of high school to East Shoal High School, where she encounters a boy who may or may not be a figure from her past: the boy with the startling blue eyes that she thought she met when she tried to free the lobsters. Her parents have never mentioned the boy, so she always thought he was a hallucination.

The boy’s name is Miles, and Alex isn’t sure if he’s the one she met at the lobster tank or not. What she does know is this: everyone at school is wary of Miles. She’s warned away from him by her only friend, Tucker, but then forced to see him every day since he leads the East Shoal Recreational Athletics Support Club, which Alex has been inducted into as community service. Miles is cold, rude, and plays pranks on her. But eventually—as happens in these types of stories—things thaw out. Alex and Miles get to know each other. Sparks fly.

What makes MADE YOU UP so different isn’t the will-they-won’t-they high school romance. It’s Alex. When all of reality is suspect, how can your narrator be reliable? Even Alex knows she’s not reliable. But that doesn’t stop you from rooting for her. It doesn’t stop you wanting to get inside Miles and see what makes him tick.

There was a moment in MADE YOU UP where I almost put the book down. Alex committed the type of betrayal I find hard to get past, more from my own history and memories of high school than from it being objectively horrible. But I’m glad I stuck with it. MADE YOU UP had some great twists—some I was expecting, some I was not—and it had a wonderful, emotional payoff at the end.

MADE YOU UP is the third book (maybe fourth) I’ve read recently that deals with schizophrenia. SCHIZO told the story of Miles’s descent into a severe episode, after he gives up his medication; MOSQUITOLAND’s Mim may or may not have even had schizophrenia, though her father worried constantly about her seeing things; CHALLENGER DEEP showed us Caden’s unravelling as his symptoms first manifested and he was hospitalized; and now, MADE YOU UP has shown a life lived while dealing with schizophrenia. It was great to see the disease normalized, to an extent—to show that it’s not the end of the world, and to see an honest look at how people live with it.

26 June 2015

Chateau Seguineau Bordeaux 2010


Ah, Bordeaux. I've had some truly fine Bordeaux wine before, but it's few and far between. I haven't hit on many gems in the $20 or less range, but it's still fun to explore.

Chateau Seguineau's 2010 was a deep rouge color, with a nose full of raisin, pipe tobacco, and vanilla notes. It had a tart, sharp, biting acidity, with chewy tannins and loads of leather. The fruits were subdued but present, mostly black cherry and black currant flavors, and the finish was dry—big surprise there.

It was not a bad wine at all. It probably would have cellared really well, since it improved as it breathed. Still, though, not as much bang for the buck as, say, Rioja.

25 June 2015

Fifty Books in Five Months: On Editing

I think the biggest takeaways from reading fifty books in five months were the lessons I learned on the craft of writing. There is something to be said for absorbing a whole ton of material and seeing what works and what doesn't work.

Probably the biggest lesson I learned was this:

Just because it's important to you, the author, doesn't mean it's important to the characters. And just because it's important to the characters doesn't mean it's important to the story.

In my own early drafts I have a terrible tendency to overwrite, to include all the boring bits of life that connect Point A to Point B. But good writing eliminates the lines. It lets the readers connect the dots.

I think this really crystalized for me while reading Robyn Schneider's THE BEGINNING OF EVERYTHING. Ezra, the narrator, had been signed up (against his will) for the debate team. Chapters and chapters had been spent leading up to his first debate tournament.

We did not see a single one of his debates.

We saw the before (which became something of a plot point later), and we saw the afterparty, but we did not see the debates, even though Ezra had been working toward them. And we did not need to. They were not important to the story.

I won't say that I'm going to stop overwriting my first drafts, but I'm going to be a lot more aggressive in cutting out bits during revisions.

So, what else did I learn?

Honestly, the other things I haven't really been able to articulate yet. I think, as I continue to read (and write), I'll find a way to do so.

For now, at least, to paraphrase John Baldessari:

I WILL NOT WRITE ANY MORE BORING SCENES.

23 June 2015

Fifty Books in Five Months: On Agents

In reading fifty books in five months, I found myself gaining a much greater appreciation for what literary agents go through when reading submissions.

A lot of agents talk about how they only offer representation for books they love; that there are lots and lots of perfectly good, even great, books that they pass on because they are not passionate about them.

I understand that completely.

After reading fifty books, there weren't that many I can think back on and still feel the emotional charge from them. I bought thirteen of those fifty books (with intentions to buy a fourteenth). Of those books, six of them shared one author, and another three shared a second author. The total number of authors whose books I loved enough to read them over and over: seven.

And I got to read the finished products. An agent had to see the potential enough to want to spend weeks or months or years revising a book before I ever got my hands on it as a reader.

I spend enough time in the internet writing community to know and see how painful and frustrating "not for me" is. But all things considered, I think it's an honest response. There were a ton of books I read that I could tell someone else would love, even though I didn't. And it wasn't always something I could articulate, either. The heart wants what the heart wants.

I imagine it's the same for an agent.

19 June 2015

Fifty Books in Five Months: On Taste

In reading fifty books over five months, I was able to quantify a lot of things that I love to see in books, and things that leave me feeling unfulfilled.

The thing that struck me most, in looking back on the books I loved so much I had to buy them, was not just that the book had to have irresistible voice—there were plenty of books that had that, plenty that I finished in only a day—but the books had to make me feel things.

I'm not the easiest person to move. I don't think I keep a lot of things bottled up, but I do think I'm the kind of person that is slow to warm up to things, including giving in to emotions. I guess some of that comes from my history with depression, and the desire to keep myself on an even keel.

Regardless, when I read, I want to feel things. I want to be moved. I want catharsis.

And for me, at least, I want that catharsis encapsulated in a moment. That moment when something unknown becomes known, that moment when something left unsaid is finally spoken aloud. The moment when two lovers touch for the first time, when a parent hugs their child and tells them everything will be all right, when a friend has to say goodbye forever.

There is power in naming a thing. Ursula K. LeGuin knew that when she made her magic system for Earthsea. When you name something, you have power over it.

Moments are like that, too. When the subtext becomes the text—that is the moment that touches me. Even if it happens on the last page of a book, I need that to be fulfilled.



SPOILERS AHEAD.



One of my favorite books so far this year was ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES, despite—or maybe because of—how shattering it was. Violet dealt with Finch's suicide head-on. I felt every bit of pain she felt. I felt the anger. I felt the hopelessness. And I felt her resolve to keep on going. I felt her decide to move on.

PLAYLIST FOR THE DEAD also dealt with the aftermath of a suicide, though it took place before the start of the story. And yet it never reached the heights of emotional honesty that ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES did. Sam was crippled by guilt about Hayden, full of anger for those who tormented him, yet at every turn, it felt like the confrontations that Sam needed—that I needed—were cut short, or just didn't happen. Even at the very end, when Sam finally talked to Hayden's brother, it felt like nothing was resolved. I can deal with things not being resolved—maybe suicide is never really resolved—but I couldn't accept the lack of release. The feelings that had built up during the novel needed released, and they weren't.

Violet and Finch's story is still with me now, months after reading it. I'll hear a song and think about it. But I forgot Sam's story enough that I had to look up his name.

This is what I want and need from my stories. And I think this is what I want to put into my stories as well.

It's good to know.

18 June 2015

Fifty Books in Five Months: The Statistics

At the beginning of 2015 I set myself the goal of reading at least 52 books throughout the course of the year. I dug right in, checked out whatever I felt like, and started working at my rather extensive to-read list.

I realized within a month or so that I was ahead of pace for my goal and, in fact, as of 1 June 2015 I had read fifty books and was halfway through number fifty-one.

It seemed like a good time to sit back and reflect on what I'd read.

First, the statistics:

Of the fifty books, 48 were fiction and 2 were nonfiction.

39 were YA, 11 were adult, though two of those could be considered cross-category.

27 were by female authors and 23 were by male authors. 10 books were by authors that identified as diverse (I was not familiar enough with all the authors to say for certain this is a complete number).

15 books featured diverse point-of-view characters.

11 of them—more than 20%—dealt with mental health issues in some way, including mental illness, suicide, schizophrenia, and PTSD.

19 were science fiction or fantasy; 24 were contemporary (or, in the adult category, "literary"); 1 was a thriller; 2 were comedies; 1 was historical; 1 was a classic; and 2 were nonfiction, which I lumped together.

Of the fifty, 2 of them I bought sight-unseen; I bought 11 more after reading and loving them; and there is 1 that I haven't bought yet but I intend to when I next order books.

I learned a lot about my own tastes, and about writing, reading, and publishing in general. I'll be sharing those thoughts in the coming days.

17 June 2015

So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

I put SO YOU’VE BEEN PUBLICLY SHAMED on my to-be-read list as soon as I heard about it. If memory serves, I read about it in an interview with Jon Ronson, not long after I’d seen one of my favorite authors go through a pretty harrowing public shaming in the Twittersphere.

I remember the feelings of indignation I felt as I witnessed the whole thing, but thankfully I managed to avoid engaging in the whole debacle, as I feel that never really helps things. The Internet is a frightening place and I have to keep my emotional distance from it. It’s a lesson that I learned the hard way, back when I was a teenager.

In SO YOU’VE BEEN PUBLICLY SHAMED, Ronson takes a look at several cases of people who were brought down by a wave of Internet outrage. He starts by examining the ways in which the Internet has been a great equalizer, allowing the collective will to force giant corporations to change their courses, bringing power to the powerless to talk about their plights. But the darker side of that coin has been how quickly and effortlessly we can attack each other, and how one call-out can transform into a landslide.

SHAMED was a fast read. It had the intensity of a thriller and the kind of brilliant voice you expect in a YA novel. Case in point, a line from a section in which Ronson is examining records from the 1700s (if memory serves) regarding public shaming:

They really should have spent more time on paragraph breaks back then and less time on the letter f.

I laughed out loud!

SHAMED makes the case that all of us have the potential to become Internet monsters, to get swept up in collective outrage and end up being actual destroyers of lives. Several of the people who were publicly shamed have yet to really recover from the desolation that followed: lost jobs, friendlessness, abject fear. And while some of the people profiled had committed actual offenses—plagiarism, lying, etc.—some did nothing more than exercise poor humor.

We have all told bad jokes before. But in the age of Twitter, your bad joke can become your worst nightmare if it offends people.

SHAMED made me take a hard look at how I interact with the Internet, at how quick I am to agree or disagree with something I read, especially if it’s calling out someone else. It’s reminded me to be compassionate and withhold judgment until the facts are out. And it’s reminded me to be careful of what I say, too.


For now, at least, Google is forever. Unless you live in Europe.

16 June 2015

Undertow by Michael Buckley

A while back, I read THE VICIOUS DEEP trilogy, a YA fantasy/adventure take on the whole merfolk thing. Since I was a child I’ve always been fascinated with merfolk. So when I heard about UNDERTOW, which seemed to offer a new take on it, I made sure to check it out.

When I examined the jacket copy more closely, though, I was given pause: it sounded an awful lot like TWILIGHT. Female protagonist with whimsical name: check. High school of horrors: check. Thrust together with a sexy paranormal being who she will no doubt argue with and then fall madly in love with: check.

Disclaimer: I do not hate TWILIGHT. It’s just not my cup of tea. Paranormal romance is not a genre I seek out or enjoy. However, I’m always interested in seeing genre tropes subverted, and I was willing to give UNDERTOW a chance.

The good: it definitely brought some new things to the table. First among those was a pretty serious allegory about racial inequality, as the Alpha—the merfolk of the story—are forced to integrate into the New York City high school our heroine, Lyric Walker, attends. It brought to mind the National Guard being called in first to prevent the desegregation of Arkansas schools (at the order of Governor Orval Faubus) and then, after President Eisenhower federalized the National Guard, to instead enforce the desegregation.

More good: UNDERTOW had great secondary characters. Lyric’s best friends Bex and Tito grounded Lyric’s story even as the shadowy government forces thrust her together with Fathom, the aforementioned Sexy Paranormal Being.

Even more good: The Alpha aren’t all beautiful. They’re as vastly different from each other as the creatures of the sea are. And they had a fascinating culture built up for them.

Yet more good: The story packs some good emotional punches and explores some real problems.

The ending had a pretty nice set piece, too, with an epic battle on the Coney Island shore.

However: In the end, it felt like it was retreading a lot of ground.

Despite all the crazy-awesome Alpha to choose from, Fathom, the Sexy Paranormal Being, was mostly normal-looking, conventionally handsome even though he had retractable blades in his arms. And the romance between him and Lyric played out pretty much exactly how I expected it to.

I had a hard time getting into Lyric’s head. Her voice seemed awfully whiny. Part of that is probably because of the severe overuse of the dialogue tag I cry. In fact, there’s a serious problem with dialogue tags throughout. I opened to a random page. Just from Lyric’s tags, I get:

I say.
I explain.
I say defensively. 
I plead.

It was hard for me to ignore.


In the end, I didn’t really like UNDERTOW, but I didn’t actively dislike it, either. It definitely wasn’t for me, though.

15 June 2015

The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

I don’t even remember how I first heard about THE BEGINNING OF EVERYTHING. I just know I added it to my list and it came up quickly and I dove right in.

It was a deep dive. Right from the start, Ezra Faulkner’s voice was vivid, so heartbreaking and yet fierce, that I was in love with the book. I read the whole thing in a day. I don’t do that often.

Ezra lets us know that he believes everyone’s life is defined by a singular moment: an event after which everything is different for them. For his former best friend, Toby, it was when a tourist stood up in a roller coaster in front of them and was decapitated; his head landed in Toby’s lap.

For Ezra, who is the star of his high school tennis team and shoe-in for homecoming king, it was the night he found his girlfriend cheating on him at a party, and then got injured in a hit-and-run that left his knee shattered so badly that he has to walk with a cane. Playing tennis was out of the question: the thing he used to define himself was suddenly gone.

In the aftermath of his own tragedy, Ezra has to reevaluate everything about himself: who he hangs out with (he reconnects with Toby in a wonderful series of scenes), he distances himself from his shallow jock friends, and he meets mysterious new girl Cassidy Thorpe. He joins the debate team. He falls in love.

THE BEGINNING OF EVERYTHING is the kind of book that’s right up my alley: hope and heartbreak intertwined; great characters; a romance that’s fun and swoon-worthy without being sappy. And it had a melancholy ending, which I usually enjoy.

But something kept me from loving it. I liked it—a LOT—but I didn’t love it.

One reason was Cooper: Ezra’s poodle. I LOVED Cooper. But I did not like how his story arc finished out. I was super pissed off.

The other reason was that time and time again, there were these small moments—beautiful, poignant, charged moments—where I just felt like I wasn’t getting the emotional reward I had been promised. Characters talked around things without every quite resolving them, like joggers who turn back just before cresting a hill. And it happened several times.

I needed those releases. I needed that catharsis.


Still, all in all, I really enjoyed THE BEGINNING OF EVERYTHING, and I found myself noting quite a few excellent, voice-y passages. Robyn Schneider has a new book coming out soon, and I will definitely be adding it to my pile.

12 June 2015

And We Stay by Linda Hubbard

Another suicide book! That’s two of them back to back. And, like, five of them since the beginning of the year.

Wow.

AND WE STAY was a Printz Honor book in 2014. I loved both of the other Printz books I read—I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN and GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE—so I had high hopes for AND WE STAY.

Ultimately, though, it wasn’t for me.

Emily Beam’s boyfriend killed himself. In the aftermath, Emily was shipped off to an all-girls boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts, down the street from where her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, lived and wrote.

It is the first of many coincidences in the book.

The story of Paul—Emily’s boyfriend—unfolds in pieces throughout the book, interspersed with Emily’s first semester at her new school and with pieces of poetry she writes to sort herself out.

I’m not really against poetry. I love Tennyson, and I enjoyed the pieces that Jandy Nelson interspersed in THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE. AND WE STAY had a similar feel in that regard—the main character writing poems to express things that she otherwise couldn’t—but I never really connected with Emily. Everything felt so contrived, so expected, and, at times, it ventured into after-school special territory.

The ending left me feeling cheated as well.

That being said, language-wise, AND WE STAY was beautiful. Emily’s poetry seeped into the prose as well, but there was a rather strange narrative distance: the book was told in third-person present, which might be my least favorite point-of-view ever. Part of that is my own reading experience: when I was younger I was into fan-fiction for a while, and the worst writers tended to write in third person past—except they couldn’t keep their tenses straight, and so inevitably veered between past and present. So third person present always makes me feel like I’m reading something that was badly edited. It’s a weird hangup I have, so when it was added to my other problems, it made it hard for me to enjoy the book.

That's not to say there wasn't a lot to recommend this book. It had one of the most honest portrayals of teenage romance and sex I've read in a while: the tentative first steps, the conflicting desires, the compromises Emily made or that Paul made. They both made some poor choices and it was nice to see those choices (and their consequences) honestly addressed. Emily and Paul both felt very real.


Overall, though, AND WE STAY didn’t really do it for me. But I know—with absolute certainty—there are people out there whose lives it will touch, and I’m glad for that. I’m glad for them.

AND WE STAY was the 50th book I read in 2015. One of the most important things I've learned in doing that is just how specific my tastes—everyone's tastes—really run. And though AND WE STAY wasn't perfect for me, I know it will be perfect for others.

10 June 2015

Playlist for the Dead by Michelle Falkoff

I don’t know if it’s just me, but it seems like this year has been full of books dealing with suicide. I’m glad that suicide is getting attention, and glad to see books that handle the subject with sensitivity.

Books about suicide have fallen into two basic categories for me: books where the narrator is contemplating it, or books where the narrator has been affected by it.

PLAYLIST FOR THE DEAD is the latter: Sam, the main character, discovers his best friend Hayden dead of an intentional overdose in the opening pages. In the aftermath, Sam finds a playlist that Hayden left for him, with a note that tells him he’ll understand if he listens. Hayden had no existing mental illness that anyone knew of, and mental illness didn’t play a role in the novel at all.

I felt right at home inside Sam’s head, and in the first few chapters he described, with heartbreaking honesty, how it feels to be a survivor of suicide: the continual swirl of anger and guilt and love and hate that becomes all-consuming.

I loved Sam’s voice, but in the end, the plot left me feeling underwhelmed.

After Hayden’s suicide, the “bully trifecta”—Hayden’s brother and his two friends—become targets of violence. One by one, someone is attacking and humiliating them. And that element of mystery and danger adds a lot of excitement to PLAYLIST FOR THE DEAD. The mystery left me guessing up until the very end.

So why did I feel underwhelmed? I’m not sure, exactly. It felt like the narrative pulled its punches. The choices made—both by the characters and by the author—felt weak to me.

I get there are no easy answers with suicide, and I get that no one ever really gets closure from it. But that said, there comes a point when things do turn a corner. It felt like rather than ever turning a corner and giving me some kind of emotional payoff, the book took everything at a gentle curve instead. All the characters spent the book feeling guilty and hiding their own roles in Hayden’s suicide—and yet, when their reasons were revealed, with two exceptions, the reasons were kind of…well…paltry.

It left me thinking: Really? That’s all? And the big bad, when he finally was forced to confront what he did, left me feeling empty. I didn’t get the emotional release I wanted. Needed.

I didn’t dislike PLAYLIST FOR THE DEAD. Far from it. But I didn’t like it the way I thought I was going to. That’s okay, though. I still think it will help a lot of people. In the end, it just wasn’t for me.

09 June 2015

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

There’s been a lot of praise going around for AN EMBER IN THE ASHES. It’s well deserved. It’s a blazing debut and an excellent addition to the body of epic fantasy.

If that sounds like gushing, or like jumping on the bandwagon, well, guilty as charged. I will gladly be on that bandwagon. AN EMBER IN THE ASHES is probably the best high fantasy I’ve read since I finished THE WHEEL OF TIME series back in 2013. It thrummed with immediacy and danger. It was exciting.

Laia is a Scholar: born into the lowest caste of society, barely above slavery. Her parents are already dead, and when her brother is accused of treason, it puts what little family she has left in danger. She is determined to rescue her brother, no matter what, and so she agrees to go undercover as a slave at the Blackcliff Military Academy—possibly the most dangerous place in the world for her.

Elias is a Martial: the upper crust of society, the race that conquered the Scholar Empire hundreds of years ago. He’s a student at Blackcliff, training to become a Mask, the feared assassins of the Martial Empire. But Elias wants to desert.

Events beyond their control bring Elias and Laia together. There’s quite a bit of prophecy in AN EMBER IN THE ASHES: a group of immortal beings known as Augurs who oversee the Martial Empire have declared that the current emperor’s line will fail. How much they see and how much they control is a constant question throughout the book; how much we control our own destinies, how much we control who we want to be, is at the very heart of Elias and Laia’s struggles.

Elias and Laia both have to make sacrifices. Choosing what they are willing to sacrifice—and, more importantly, what they are willing to sacrifice for—is what truly set AN EMBER IN THE ASHES apart. Elias and Laia grapple with moral questions that are terrifyingly complicated and yet, at the same time, perilously simple. To kill or not to kill. To betray or not to betray. These are the questions I find most compelling. 

The ending was the most thrilling fifty pages I’ve read since GOLDEN SON: tense, taut, frightening. Laia and Elias reach a conclusion, but not an ending.


Thankfully a sequel has already been announced. I will be waiting for it.

My prediction is after the break...




SPOILERS...




Did anyone else think that the Augurs were really the jinn?

08 June 2015

The Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner

Why do we fear things? I’m not talking about being afraid of spiders or heights. Why do we, as a people, fear drugs and terrorists and teenage mothers? In THE CULTURE OF FEAR, Barry Glassner posits that we fear in microcosm what we are, as a society, uneasy with in macrocosm.

The subtitle explains it: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage, & So Much More.

I no doubt added this book to my to-be-read list some years ago. The book itself is five years old. I suspect I saw an interview on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report and thought it sounded interesting.

Indeed, it was fascinating. The first edition was written before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and so it ended up offering a rather nostalgic picture of the American psyche. Glassner dissects the ways that politics, mass media, and our own prejudices create irrational fear of statistically unlikely events: despite people being more likely to be struck by lightning than to die in a plane crash, the FAA is frequently lambasted for “failures” of safety; scares of flesh-eating bacteria, rare and contained, take on frightening proportions when the reports of the victims fill the nightly news. (That segment reminded me of the 2014 Ebola scare in many ways).

Glassner argues that the things we become hysterical about are really just cover for our underlying problems. Rather than focusing on the easy availability of guns, for instance, people chose to focus on “killer kids.” Rather than focus on the fact that most children subjected to abuse are victims of parents, family members, or adults they already know, people obsess about stranger danger and online predators.

Glassner is quite damning about the role the media plays in all this, and he is equally damning of politicians, but what is saddest of all is that it all comes down to us: we as a people have to be better and smarter about our fears.


THE CULTURE OF FEAR was an insightful book that made me really think about the things I worry about and the weight I give to stories on the news. I hope it has made me a smarter citizen, and I hope it will do the same for others, too.

04 June 2015

Still Waters by Ash Parsons

There is something special about books where the narrator makes poor choice after poor choice and you find yourself rooting for him or her anyway.

Ash Parsons’ STILL WATERS was one of those.

Jason is a high school senior whose dad beats him on a regular basis; he’s learned to fight, and though he is the toughest kid in school, he’s still terrified of his dad. Jason dreams of turning eighteen and running away, taking his little sister with him.

When Michael, a rich kid, offers Jason money to pretend to be his friend, it is—of course—too good to be true, and Jason ends up turning from a kid who only seems bad to a kid who actually does bad things.

Michael was written to sleazy perfection. He made my skin crawl. And his wishy-washy girlfriend, Cyndra, who might or might not like Jason, was superb, because I could never tell if I loved her or loathed her. But what really set STILL WATERS apart was Jason himself: he had so many layers, and so much heart, but he kept it bottled up so tight that it was easy for others go push his buttons and make him do what they wanted.

Like I said, Jason made some pretty dumb choices, but he usually made them for good reasons, noble ones even. So much of the story was about him taking risks, doing things he didn’t want to do, because he was desperate to save his sister.

That kind of love for your sibling says a lot about someone. And it was that incongruity—the tough guy juxtaposed with the loving brother—that made STILL WATERS such a compelling read, even though it felt a bit clich├ęd at times, and even if the ending made me kind of angry. I suppose I’m the kind of person that forgives and remembers, and there are some things I have a hard time getting past.

Despite that, I truly enjoyed STILL WATERS. It was a strong debut and I can’t wait to read what Ash Parsons comes up with next.

03 June 2015

Still Alive

I'm still here! Work has been crazy. But I did have the chance to visit New Orleans for work and have delicious beignets. Below is a picture.

In other news, from 1 January to 1 June of 2015 I read fifty (50!!) books. I've learned a lot from this project and I will be doing a multi-part series on it once I catch up on things.

Meanwhile, I leave you with beignets, courtesy of Cafe Beignet.