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This YA book wasn’t an easy book to start reading.

When I started it, I read the prolog, which is all about the main character and only narrator, Crash. Crash is his nickname, from his last name and the fact that he’s rather severely ADD and identifies closely with the video game character named Crash whose defining strengths are speed and quick reactions.

In the prolog, we meet Crash. He’s a senior in high school. Very popular and charming but an academic flop. All existing ADD drug treatments have been tried and don’t work well for him, so he’s trying to deal with it without drugs. He also has limited family support: his mom and his psychiatrist try, but his father is vindictive and hostile, a perfectionist who blames Crash for simply not trying hard enough. (Like some people who really don’t believe that conditions like ADD really exist.)

What he mostly does in the prologue is drink, smoke pot or otherwise consume as much of any drug he and his buddies can get their hands on, and try their best to get girls drunk/drugged and fuck them. (Yeah, that word exactly conveys the guys’ attitude toward girls.) Sounds like a perfect candidate for certain fraternities and colleges that have been in the news recently. Are we glorifying rape here????

I read the prolog, closed the book and put it down. I almost didn’t continue it.

A few days later, I picked it up again and said, “I’ll try chapter 1. If I still don’t like that, I give up.”

By the end of the chapter, I was going along with the story, involved in it, and finished reading it that night about 12 hours later.

The book had turned into something interesting, because it’s covering two things.

The context of the story is that Crash became a national hero during his senior year when he ended an attack on his high school by another senior student, the one called “Burn,” that he’s known since middle school or thereabouts.

Crash and Burn are both gifted kids. Burn, though, is a diagnosed sociopath. During the story, he’s in and out of treatment, and he’s gone through some hell of his own (his father was killed in the 9/11/01 WTC attacks and his mother kills herself a few years later).

The first thing it covers is the story of Crash and Burn’s complex relationship as things build up to the day Burn rigs the school with explosives and takes everyone hostage. Crash and Burn have a tangled relationship of friendship and hatred, that gets move complex when Burn’s suicidal older sister becomes Crash’s first real love.

The second thing it covers is the story of Crash writing the story of their relationship, the events leading up to attack on the school, how Crash finally ended it, and the “McGuffin” (so to speak): just what were the words Crash said to Burn that finally ended the attack. I won’t reveal them here, they connect into Crash and Burn’s relationship. They’re good words, well-chosen and very much fit the characters and their relationship, but they’re somewhat of a letdown.

There’s one bit of unreality that stood out to me. The story covers 4 years of drunken, drugged, rampant sex during the middle Oughts, by Crash and Burn and all their friends (boys and girls). Yet there is never once a pregnancy or a case of STD. A couple of times, Crash specifically uses a condom. Other times it’s never mentioned. Sorry, there’s too much evidence demonstrating how little condom use there actually is in high schools, despite their sex education classes, when teens are drunk and drugged out of their minds.

Outside of that, there’s something in the book for young adults, people who like psychological stories, people who like action – and writers who’ve had their own struggles with telling a story.

I think it also has just about the perfect cover design for the story: an open matchbook, with 2 matches still in it; one burnt, one unburnt.

While the ending is well-done and appropriate for the story, I was a bit disappointed with it. Crash goes through some serious emotional trials, the only woman he really loves in the story dies by her own hand, he and his father still aren’t getting along. But he seemingly hasn’t changed at all.

That last sentence is slightly undercut, though. There’s a suggestion at the end that his attitude towards drugs and women has changed, as he leaves to spend a weekend with a woman where they relate not through drink/drugs and rape-like sex, but through sharing feelings, dreams, their hearts. Gone is the rape-like sex; replaced with sex that sets out to please her, to please each other.

He’s still not going to become a collegiate success, but I think he’s not going to continue being the troubled high school kid drowning himself in drink, drugs and sex anymore, either.

Try the book, you might like it.

The last time we’d seen our friend and fellow WOW Group member John Sauget, he was reviewing draft drawings for the children’s coloring storybook he was writing.

Then we ran into him at the local RWA chapter’s social event at Hukilau Sports Bar & Grill in town. And he had copies of his published coloring storybook!

It tells the story of Seamus, a leprechaun who arrives in Hawaii by escaping from a whaling ship. There he meets a lovely menehune, Kawila. As they get to know each other, they (and the reader) get to learn some Hawaiian, some Gaelic, and some Hawaiian and Gaelic folklore about the little people. (It concludes with a spelling and pronunciation guide to the Hawaiian and Gaelic phrases used.)

Helena Aiona Smith and Lovey Slater also contributed.

The LeprechaunAndTheMenehuneCiover-320x243 The full-color cover is beautifully drawn. The interior drawings, by local artist Phil “Tiki” Wulf, are cute and really invite you to whip out your crayons or color markers and have at. (Parents, restrain yourselves, or buy your own copy!)

The book’s available as a paperback on Amazon. It’s also available as an ebook, but what’s the fun of a coloring EBOOK?

You can contact John at jonsauget@hotmail.com.

He’s already working on a sequel to tell more of the adventures of Kawila, Seamus and their son Kale (Hawaiian name pronounced “KAH-lay”, not “KAYL”), the Leprehune.

This is a mesmerizing, tense, unsettling science fiction psychology thriller about the 12th expedition into an area called Area X. Area X is apparently a part of a sea-coast that has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades; most of what humans had built there has decayed back into nature. It is being investigated by a clandestine government agency called the Southern Reach. (Who really trusts what such an agency might say or do?)

The first expedition came back and said everything in Area X was fine. The second ended in mass suicide, the third in a bloody gun battle as the members killed each other. The members of the seventh returned mysteriously over 18 months, but all died of cancer within weeks of returning.

The main character is a biologist, the wife of a medic in the seventh expedition. The whole book is told in first person from her POV. All members of the 12th expedition are women: a surveyor, an anthropologist, and a psychologist who is the oldest and the leader of the expedition.

The book isn’t clear about what the Border is that has cut off Area X, although there’s a suggestion that things aren’t what they seem (the Border is something that causes hallucinations; that’s why everyone who crosses it has to be hypnotized to remain calm). The Border is also moving out into the land surrounding Area X. Sounds like enough to motivate Southern Reach’s “good” side, right?

It comes out that the psychologist has planted hypnotic orders in all the expedition members. Some orders force them to see Area X in certain ways. So our perceptions of Area X are themselves suspect.

For example, they discover a structure the narrator insists on calling a tower although only the top floor or two appear above ground with the rest descending underground. Together, the surveyor and the narrator descend into the Tower, and it becomes clear that the narrator sees things that the surveyor doesn’t.

(At the end of the story, the narrator discovers that one order implanted in each of them is to suicide. Did the 2nd expedition kill itself on command?)

They find things that previous expeditions had reported, like a mysterious empty lighthouse on the shore of the sea. They find the tower I mentioned earlier, where something mysterious and deadly produces living words (made of an unknown biological life form) that spirals up along the walls inside the tower. The words include:

“Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms”

that continues on endlessly in that vein. Eventually the biologist reconstructs additional words from a coral-like frieze on the wall beneath the living words:

“Why should I rest when wickedness exists in the world … God’s love shines on anyone who understands the limits of endurance, and allows forgiveness … Chosen for the service of a higher power.”

She finds (or hears) similar words coming from creatures and plants in Area X. As if the life or living reality in Area X is endlessly talking to itself.

Did the surveyor and the biologist both see the words? Only the biologist sees that the Tower seems to be breathing, its walls moving in and out.

Later, the anthropologist’s body is found down in the tower, her intestines ripped out and her body covered with a green glowing fungus. She had gone there seeking the source of the mysterious words. So apparently she could see the words.

As things go on, the psychologist disappears and the surveyor decides that the expedition’s over: “Best thing we can now is return to the border and await extraction.” The biologist leaves her behind, hiking alone to the lighthouse which appears to have been the central interest of many of the previous expeditions.

In the lighthouse, she finds a room filled with journals from the previous expeditions, containing information that didn’t make it out of Area X. The journals are just dumped into the room from a trapdoor in the ceiling, forming a messy, damp heap. Was someone hiding them? The bottom of the heap is moldy and rotting. It appears that at least some of the information dumped there is known by the Southern Reach agency.

Clearly, a lot more expeditions have gone into Area X than just 12, possibly for as many years as Area X has existed. Or even longer! (Perhaps time travel is also occurring?)

She also finds the psychologist, sitting upright at the base of the tower with numerous broken bones. They psychologist says she lept from the top when she thought something terrifying was rushing towards her. (Is she also under some hypnotic compulsion she doesn’t know about? Or was she attacked by something from Area X?)

She is also infected with the glowing fungus. The narrator talks with the psychologist, receiving some suggestive (but not necessarily reliable) answers, then the psychologist dies, asking to be left there, as the fungus continues to spread.

The narrator reads some of the journals, (including those of her deceased husband) but they don’t necessarily help clarify anything.

She then returns to the camp, where the surveyor shoots and hits her twice, demanding to know what she did with the psychologist and wondering aloud if the narrator is human anymore. That’s a good question, because the narrator shoots the surveyor when “the brightness” growing within her enables her to sense where the surveyor is crawling towards her through the high reeds of the swamp lying between the camp and the lighthouse.

When the narrator finds and reads the surveyor’s journal, the journal is blank. The surveyor has been faking her hours of journal-writing sessions. Except for a single sentence that suggests that the surveyor “took care of” the psychologist.

By the end of the story, the biologist is alive, partially taken over by the fungus. “Partially” only because the fungus has had to pause while healing her two bullet wounds. (Seems like this fungus has some benefits!) Then she decides not to return to the Southern Reach agency, but to leave the camp and head north, the direction that she thinks her husband may have taken when he somehow walked out of Area X and returned back home.

Vandermeer’s style is crisp, with a nice awareness of rhythm and the affect of rhythm on building mood and emotion. The characterizations of people; the narrators’ thoughts, feelings and motivations; “reality(ies)” of Area X itself are crystal-clear. Everything is there. But despite the clarity, everything is still shrouded in mystery. The meanings are absent, vague, conflicting, questionable, unreliable. That helps maintain a nice tension throughout the story.

When they arrived in Area X, the narrator finds out that the linguist who started the expedition with them outside of Area X didn’t come in with them:

“‘She had second thoughts,’ the psychologist told us, meeting our questions with a firm gaze. ‘She decided to stay behind.'”

Is this a suggestion that we should be very suspicious of the language we’re reading? (Of language itself?) There are points where the narrator talks about what happened in her life before the expedition: her various biological researches, her marriage, her husband’s death. But – given the embedded hypnotic commands and the psychologist’s suggestion that Southern Reach may have implanted false memories – how much of that can we trust?

The narrator’s name is never used (as far as I recall) and the narrator never uses the other expedition members’ names. She refers to them by their specialties. Yet it doesn’t feel distancing, like I’d have expected. It feels right because it’s the way the narrator is: kind of distant, apart from the others. One of the narrator’s preferences even from before the expedition is to be alone, studying nature, rather than being around or interacting with people. Even her husband only calls her “Ghost bird”. Is she a ghost, not really there? A bird always flying away? Both?

This book intrigues me enough to want to read it again. It seems to connect with one of the themes Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood stories: how much “reality” is determined by our individual thoughts, feelings, beliefs. In the Mythago Wood mythos, what appear as archetypes in the mind – or even concentrated, willed thoughts – take on physical reality as mythagos with a life of their own that continues on and changes subtly from appearance to appearance, ringing endless variations on the archetype.

Similarly, how much is “real” (in Area X outside the characters) and how much is “real” (inside their possibly warped perceptions and memories) in Area X? Are they even IN Area X, or are they really just handcuffed to the chairs they were seated in before departure? (The narrator notices handcuffs on the arms of the metal chairs they waited in before the psychologist hypnotized them to cross the Border.)

I’m looking forward to the two final volumes; the second, Authority, is due in May 2014 and the third, Acceptance, in September 2014. If they turn out as well as this one, I may have a new trilogy to add to my collection!