And how good a writer were you at ages 9 or 12?

Barbara Newhall Follett, American child prodigy novelist:

Reportedly depressed about her marriage, she mysteriously disappeared at age 25.


Book Review: “Crash and Burn” by Michael Hassan

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.

Book Review: “The Waking Dark” by Robin Wasserman

The story begins quite promisingly: A small town in the Midwest, on a hot summer day, when suddenly five seemingly-normal people in town commit senseless bloody murders (some singular, some multiple, all but one murder-suicides). Only one of the murderers survives; she’s locked up in an insane asylum.

The story is told through the POVs of a couple of teenagers (not the popular ones) in town, from different classes of society, and seems to be doing a good job of exploring what the various teens are feeling and thinking in reaction to the murders. Sounds like a story that’s going somewhere, with something to say.

Oh, and the town was built on the site of a town of the same name that was burnt to the ground and all 1100+ people in it were killed. That (and maybe the general tone) must have been what one of the advance reviewers meant when he likened it to Stephen King.

Then suddenly the town is surrounded by the US military, all communication with the outside world cutoff, they’re fed some kind of story about something toxic and/or infectious nearby that leaked, etc. Oh, and the mayor’s specifically been handed absolute power – “Do anything you want,” says the Army colonel in charge of the quarantine. And the mayor’s named the high school football team (a bunch of drunken hooligans) as volunteer deputies who’ll be patrolling the town (before this, they’ve been built up as real threats to gang rape one of the POV characters) … Oh, and there’s more than traces of some fundamentalist religious crazies in there, too.

And the story proceeds to wander away from its originality into cliched formula …

I don’t usually give up on a book once I start reading it. I might decide not to read it after I’ve checked it out of the library, but once I start reading, I usually finish. But, sorry, I got to page 122 (hard back library edition), and quit.

I wish the author had written the story she had going before she lost her way.

Book Review: Carrie Ryan’s post-zombie apocalyse books

The three books are:

The first is my very favorite zombie story. I read it about 2 years ago, when it was a “Best For Young Adults” selection.

This year, I found the other two at my local library and snapped them up.

Some writers can write a great book in an imagined world, then prove unable to write another great book set in that same world. Ryan isn’t one of those writers. She has three great books set in her post-zombie apocalypse world.

The three books are loosely connected, with the main character of The Forest of Hands and Teeth being the adopted mother of the main character of The Dead-Tossed Waves. The main character of The Dark and Hollow Places is the sister of another of the main characters in Dead-Tossed Waves.

What I like most about her books is that they’re not focused on the blood and gore of fighting zombies. She’s writing about the surviving humans and the effects the zombies and survival has on them, their society and their religious beliefs.

Common thread: catastrophic change (the Return) and how people respond

Zombies are something good

The Soulers are religious people who’ve decided that zombies (being essentially immortal) are the immortality that some religions believe is the reward given to good/righteous believers. A Souler voluntarily agrees to be bitten by a zombie so they can return in their own immortal body. The other Soulers then smash and remove the returnee’s lower jaw and pull their teeth so they can’t bite or infect anyone else, and keep them chained up as part of the family, so to speak.

This touches on a repeated question throughout all the stories: when someone becomes a zombie, is the original personality/soul still there, or is it gone and the zombie body is just a biological machine? No one really answers this question, although one of the main characters (Catcher) in the two later books hints a bit toward an answer. Catcher was bitten, but turns out to be immune; his immune system is able to hold the infection in check. Those in the story who are familiar with immunes say that whenever he finally dies, he’ll come back as a zombie. But none can say if he’ll still be in the zombie body or not.

Zombies are something evil to be destroyed whenever possible, or avoided

This is expressed in the general attitude of the survivors, and particularly expressed in all three books. In The Forest of Teeth and Hands, the people who’ve been protecting the village from the surrounding zombies have formed an almost-religious community with rigid rules intended to protect the village. In The Dead-Tossed Waves, the larger village has nothing particularly religious about it, but has rigid rules intended to protect the village. In The Dark and Hollow Places, a non-religious military dictatorship (the Protectorate and its Recruiters army) protects the larger coastal village (and the even larger Dark City). In all three cases, the rules result in the deaths of uninfected citizens.

The responses of the village sisterhood, the Soulers and the Protectorate to the wrenching change caused by the Return of the dead as zombies boil down to basically the same: hard-hearted, hopeless, resistance.

The positive response

At the end of The Dark and Hollow Places, the response is, “Zombies are a part of the world as it is, but we don’t need to give up living to deal with it.” It ends with hope as the main characters and the downtrodden slaves of the powerful escape the final zombie horde by flying away in hot air balloons. Then they go to sea in an old sailing vessel, setting out to look for other pockets of survivors, with the hope of establishing a sea-born society safe from the zombies.


She’s still writing for young adults, so sometimes her characters spend a bit too much time moping around about the whole “He loves me, he loves me not, should I love him, do I love him” et al. The two later books have more of that problem than the first. But unlike Charles de Lint, I never felt like anything kept me from connecting with the characters and immersing myself in the stories.


Read and reread them all!

Recent book reads

Just read three of the 2014 Best For Young Adult (BFYA) books. I like YA because they’re usually more imaginative and (in many cases) more ‘real’ than much of the usual commercial books out there. I think this is because teens and young adults are more open to something that’s new and different; they haven’t (necessarily) frozen themselves into the “adult mind” and its “I only want the same old stuff I liked before” mode.

So here are some quick reviews of the three:

A Trick Of The Light

Lois Metzger

In this book, an unidentified narrator tells the story of a guy who pretty much has his high school life together (popular star athlete, good grades, good relationships with friends and family) who starts hearing a voice. The voice tells him to work harder, exercise more, eat less, make himself perfect. He starts listening to the voice, doing what it says, although there are times when the voice has to struggle to get him to do what he’s told. Turns out, the voice is the narrator.

Where’s the voice coming from – is it a demon? An alien? No, it’s the voice of his eating disorder, anorexia.

Metzger wrote the book because 10% of anorexics are guys, but very little study is done of male anorexia because it’s perceived as a “girl’s disease.”

The story ends with him recovering – but the voice is still there, tempting and trying to manipulate him – so it ends with the reality that no matter how much he wants that voice to go away, he’ll always be fighting the disorder.

This is the first story I’ve read in which the narrator is a disease. People who suffer from chronic conditions have characterized their conditions as having a character, an identity or personality apart from their own. So it was neat reading a story that builds on that.

The White Bicycle

Beverly Brenna

This is the concluding volume of a trilogy telling the first-person story of a (now) 19-year-old woman with Aspberger’s Syndrome. In this volume, she and her mother and her mother’s boyfriend have gone to live in France for the summer. The boyfriend has hired the narrator to take care of his physically-handicapped son. She has to adjust to a number of things (change from America to France, the presence of mother’s boyfriend) and is still struggling to deal with her condition. She’s also wrestling with what independence means (to her and her relationship with society) and what she wants to do about college and such.

My godson is Aspbergian in his mid-twenties. He paints pictures, he has started designing games. He has come a long way when it comes to communicating and interacting with people. What I particularly liked about the book is how true the author is to an Aspergian character’s viewpoint. While reading it, I could easily recognize something she thinks or says or how she acts as something my godson has mentioned or done.

I also liked that it was set in sourthern France, which I haven’t visited yet. The narrator’s limited ability to speak French is many steps ahead of my non-French! So that part was cool.

The narrator’s parents’ marriage disintegrated over the course of the trilogy under the strain of raising an Aspbergian child, so I’d recommend the trilogy for anyone interested in Aspberger’s or any autism spectrum disorder, any young adult Aspbergian, or siblings of someone on the spectrum.

Rags & Bones

Melissa Marr & Tim Pratt (editors)

Forget the “Best For Young Adults” label. (Although this is a great book for YA, too.) This is a great collection of modern retellings of classic old stories, such as Sleeping Beauty, The Castle of Otranto (the very first Gothic novel ever published!) and so on. Retold by well-known authors, such as Neil Gaiman.

The ones that stuck with me the most are the retelling of:

  • Sleeping Beauty – in which we find out that as everyone in the castle has been sleeping, the wicked witch has been keeping herself young and immortal by slowly draining their lives. The ending is NOT what you expect!
  • The Castle of Otranto – in which we experience some events of the original story translated to the modern day where a movie crew is filming a movie at the actual Otranto Castle in Italy when one of the stars is killed by a strong wind that blows his trailer over a cliff. The ending is NOT that of the book, since the forces behind the goings-on get their way (to have people leave the castle alone).

Recommend reading any or all of them!