Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby asks the question: what would you do if you discovered the power to make you a god? Suddenly, the command of life and death, sickness and health, growth and destruction, is in your hands. Do you want it? Will you use it? Can you control it? 

Carl Streator, the main character and narrator, is a journalist who stumbles upon the mysterious powers of a Culling song, an ancient spell that, when read aloud or focused on in the mind, has the power not only to put people to sleep but also kill them. As he discovers the vast reach of the song, he meets another, Helen Hoover Boyle (a real estate agent), who knows this secret and who has been using it to assassinate people all over the world. The two quickly come together, both hoping to find the Book of Shadows, an ancient spell book where the Culling song originated; Streator so he can destroy it and Boyle so she can become even more powerful and invincible. The two will be hunted down by time, by witches, by police detectives, and by each other, until the Book of Shadows falls into the wrong hands and, suddenly, the two realize they must become the hunters. 

In Palahniuk’s books, characterization, I find, is typically the weaker element, much less dynamic than the prose and plot. That is not the case in Lullaby. One of the most fascinating elements in this book is its characterization; how will different people react to the power they find? What do our actions tell us about human nature and the nature of power? Perhaps the reason the characters are so interesting is because they are based on people in Palahniuk’s own world; perhaps the reason their stories are so powerful is because Palahniuk wrote this book when mired in a deep, personal struggle (his father and father’s girlfriend had recently been murdered by the woman’s ex-husband), which directly relates to the plot of the story: How do we decide who lives and who dies? Does any one of us, regardless of circumstances, have authority over another’s fate? All-in-all, the dark personal circumstances of Palahniuk’s life create great tension and allow for extraordinary character growth and development. Each individual in the book, from the main characters, Streator and Hoover, to their friends and rivals, Mona and Oyster, down to a necrophilia-obsessed paramedic,  has a back story, a history, and a purpose, which makes them all equally interesting and dynamic, particularly in relation to the others. 

There is no doubt that Palahniuk is a master of the macabre. He explores the darkest, most dangerous elements of human nature, in transgressive style. The book is structured by a temporal ending, which frames the story and is interspersed throughout the traditional, linear plotline. As with most Palahniuk books, there is a plot twist near the end of the story, which brings the temporal ending into focus with the linear plot. The temporal segment chapters are italicized, which creates an enigma of sorts, as the reader cannot be entirely sure whether or not the narrator of both the present and future stories is the same person, or even whether or not the future narrator is alive (thus putting the “present-linear” plot into a past tense, without expressly doing so in the linear style). The story progresses quickly and is well-paced, but the plot twist at the end, which was hinted at throughout the story by those temporal-future segments, could likely have been achieved without those interruptions. 

The best thing about great books is that they are more than just a good story. While Lullaby is entertaining, mysterious, and bizarre, it is also highly psychologically exploratory. The story is meant to make the readers think: think about power and how one should (or would) wield it; think about capital punishment, its merits/effectiveness or lack thereof; think about sacrifice, self-worth, penitence, forgiveness, mourning, and recovery. So much of what happens in this story is deeper than the story itself, but that these themes and elements are delivered within the realm of such an interesting, disturbing, and quite terrifying story just makes it all the better. The gothic writers would be proud of what Palahniuk achieves here.

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed. He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix. He’s making sure your attention is always filled. And this being fed, it’s worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s in your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.”

“When ancient Greeks had a thought, it occurred to them as a god or goddess giving an order. Apollo was telling them to be brave. Athena was telling them to fall in love. Now people hear a commercial for sour cream potato chips and rush out to buy them, but now they call this free will.”

“You turn up your music to hide the noise. Other people turn up their music to hide yours. You turn up yours again. Everyone buys a bigger stereo system. This is the arms race of sound.  You don’t win with a lot of treble. This isn’t about quality. It’s about volume. This isn’t about music. This is about winning.”

“The best way to waste your life is by taking notes. The easiest way to avoid living is to just watch.”

“These people so scared of silence. These are my neighbors. These sound-oholics. These quiet-ophobics.”

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Every Day by David Levithan

13262783Can you imagine yourself not as a physical being, but as an ethereal entity – a formless consciousness that floats through life from day-to-day, always looking like someone different but always knowing yourself to be the same?

Every day since birth, A wakes up in a different body. Sometimes he wakes up as a boy, sometimes she wakes up as a girl. A has no physical or biological sex, instead needing to adapt to the sex of the host body where s/he resides any particular day. S/he is capable of accessing the memories of the host bodies and can also allow (or not) that host to remember what A experiences on the day of his visit, though s/he usually chooses to block these memories so that the host will not feel as if they have been possessed or invaded. Each night, when A falls asleep in one body, s/he knows that s/he will wake up in the morning as someone entirely different.

A does have a personality, consciousness, and sense of self that is entirely individual, though s/he has no physical form, and A carries this individuality into each new day and every new body. This is the story of 40 days in the life of A – perhaps the most important 40 days that s/he will ever experience. S/he learns that s/he is perhaps not alone in this very unique experience – there may be others out there who are doomed (or blessed?) to exist only in others’ bodies. A also falls in love, for the second time, and must learn how to make a relationship work under such extraordinary circumstances or s/he must choose to make the ultimate sacrifice, for someone else’s happiness.

The two main characters are A and Rhiannon, 16 year olds who are on their own paths to self-discovery and whose encounter with each other will set the trajectories of their lives in new directions. Through A, we also witness, on the surface, the lives of dozens of other teenagers: boys and girls; popular kids and nerds; athletic kids and beautiful ones; kids who are blind, fat, depressed, alcoholic, addicts, or suffering from ADHD. We also get glimpses of their families and friends, though their stories are always in the background as A navigates their lives for one day, in pursuit of his own. The only other recurring characters include two of A’s former hosts, Justin (Rhiannon’s boyfriend and the way A comes to meet her – awkward!) and Nathan, whom A has left, perhaps purposely, with lingering feelings of his “possession” and who ultimately introduces him to Reverend Poole, the man who will change A’s perspective forever. Levithan’s primary characters are interesting individuals, as are the host bodies, all of whom are believable teenagers with varied personalities and circumstances. Viewing the characters through A, who essentially is each of them (including Rhiannon) at one point or another, creates a unique experience for the reader.

journal-011-300x200The structure of the book, too, is interesting, though not entirely unique. It is, in a way, a journal-format. Each small chapter is one day in the life of A and, indeed, the chapter titles correspond to the chronological day (such as Day 6014) in A’s life. This structure, while not entirely original, is absolutely appropriate for the type of story being told and is suitable to A’s narrative style. Levithan’s writing style, too, his prose and language, are appropriate to the age and maturity level of the narrator and also match the oftentimes didactic nature of the story. It is lofty but grounded, well-paced but reflective.

One criticism of the book is that it is at times preachy. This point is well-taken and I do agree with those who find certain elements, such as the narrative arguments for social and sexual equality, not just pointed, but sometimes heavy-handed. Levithan is an issue writer, though, and as another reviewer has aptly mentioned, issue writers are interested in making their point and, in fact, making points is necessary to their purpose. The fact that I agreed with most of the points Levithan was making (gender equality, love of the person not of the sex, etc.), made the story more interesting for me, but I can certainly see how readers who struggle or disagree with such sentiments might find the “lecture” portions of the narrative a bit jarring.

My primary point of contention comes from a particularly disturbing element of the story, which is, I believe, both indicative of the narrator’s personality but also, though I am usually reluctant to make these arguments, of the writer’s bias. Throughout the book, the narrator makes a point of being highly understanding and empathetic. Since s/he has spent his (I will stick with gendered-male pronoun from here on out, as that is ultimately how I perceived the narrator) life living inside of different bodies, it is understandable that he would be a more enlightened individual. He has been male and female, blind, deformed, ugly, and everything in-between. In each case, he makes the argument for empathy and compassion – that we should love ourselves and each other as we are and that each of us suffers from our own demons which might affect the way we treat ourselves and the way we interact with the world. A is able to build his relationship with Rhiannon, another equally enlightened young woman, whether he be in the body of a beautiful black girl, a beefy metal head, or a stringy track jock. The point is well-taken: be yourself, try to show others what is on the inside, and learn to accept others for who they truly are, not just for what they look like.

fat-thinBut then we get near the end of the book and A wakes up in the body of an obese boy. The body weighs 300 pounds and suddenly the tone changes dramatically, for the worse. This chapter, and the next one, is devoted largely not to acceptance or understanding, but to feelings of disgust and anger. It is this body, and only this one, that A is ashamed to show Rhiannon. It is this body that A blames for what it is. Unlike the addicts or depressed teenagers, whom A tries to empathize with and thereby get the reader to think more deeply about, this fat kid gets nothing but criticism – A even tries to “access” the reasons why he might be so fat, but finds only laziness as the cause. Then, after deciding to meet with Rhiannon anyway, it is after this particular meeting that Rhiannon concludes she can no longer engage in this kind of relationship, because she cannot build a relationship with someone who never looks the same. Rhiannon struggles with this all along, but with all of the other bodies, male and female, tall and short, pimpled, hairy, or beautiful, Rhiannon accepts the body. Until the fat, sweaty boy shows up and everything changes. It would be easy to say that this is just a teenage insecurity – that the author is trying to make a statement about the judgmental nature of people and youths; however, throughout the book, both A and Rhiannon, as I have already mentioned, are incredibly enlightened and accepting of all people and situations. Why, then, is this one person so different – so disgusting? Unfortunately, I feel it is a deeper bias coming from the author. He makes a point of making points in this book, as in all of his books. It would be naïve and unfair to think, then, that this, too, is anything other than his making a point: do not be fat. Fat comes from being lazy. There are no psychological or emotional reasons for obesity, it just means you eat too much and do too little. It is outrageous. Not since reading Atlas Shrugged have I been so angered by a particular element of a particular book and it saddens me that this perspective comes from Levithan who is, otherwise, a very positive, compassionate writer.

Ultimately, though, I did love this book. I found the premise incredibly interesting and thought the social/gender politics were expressed in a unique way. The story moves at a great pace, the characters and their stories are fascinating and believable. There is a fantasy element to the story which comes into play late in the book, when Reverend Poole and A finally meet, but the narrative is still grounded firmly in reality. Had it not been for the one bizarrely glaring prejudice mentioned in the paragraph above, I could have easily found this to be a perfect read. As it is, I found it, still, to be a wonderful one. Highly recommended.

Notable Quotes:

“Kindness connects to who you are, while niceness connects to how you want to be seen” (56).

“You shouldn’t have to venture deep down in order to get to love” (72).

“Tomorrow . . . a little less than a promise, and a little more than a chance” (97).

“I see no sin in a kiss. I only see sin in the condemnation” (223).

“Ultimately, the universe doesn’t care about us. Time doesn’t care about us. That’s why we have to care about each other” (320).

In the Path of Falling Objects by Andrew Smith

Plot/Story:

Sixteen-year-old Jonah and his fourteen-year-old brother Simon are abandoned by their mother, left in their house without food, running water, or electricity. Their eldest brother is serving in Vietnam, with plans to return home soon, but they haven’t heard from him in months. The brothers soon realize that they have little chance of surviving on their own; so, with ten dollars and some spare clothes, they leave their New Mexico home and head west towards Yuma, Arizona, where their father is incarcerated and soon to be released. Not too far into their journey, the horse they have been riding on dies, so they are forced to make the rest of the journey on foot. At least, that’s what they should have done. Instead, brash Simon, never one to heed his older brother’s warnings, hails down a passing car which is being driven by an unlikely and unsavory pair, a sociopathic man and a pregnant teenage girl. At first glance, the man and the beautiful young girl seem like a couple of unlikely heroes. The boys soon realize, though, that their would-be hero is not what he appears. He has buckets of cash littering the trunk of his car. There’s a stolen Don Quixote statue in the backseat. Oh, and he also has a gun. But he’s not the only one packing heat. The question is: who will use his gun first, and why?


Characterization:

There are some ups and downs with characterization and character development. Some of the characters are well-developed and complex, particularly Mitch, the sociopath, and Matt, the eldest brother. The small glimpses into Mitch’s darker persona are spaced well and provide tantalizing precursors to the larger melt-down, which readers will anticipate but not be disappointed by when it finally arrives. Witnessing the boys’ elder brother’s descent into madness, caused by the horrors he is exposed to in Vietnam, is also intriguing; it adds complexity and character to the story’s sub-plot. I found Jonah, Simon, and Lilly less interesting, though they were the characters that received the most page time. Jonah’s deep, almost paralyzing infatuation with the girl comes about so quickly and without much explanation, making it difficult to believe (aside from a “teenage hormone” perspective). Simon’s anger toward his older brother is also near-immediately apparent, but it is there with little explanation or cause (Jonah seems like a decent guy and hasn’t done anything, that we know of, to make Simon mad at him). There’s the underlying “sibling rivalry” theme which works, of course, but the level of animosity the brothers have toward each other, particularly Simon toward Jonah, doesn’t really fit a “that’s what brothers do” kind of equation. We learn, later in the story, that there has always been conflict but developing that sooner, rather than forcing it to be assumed, could have helped the overall narrative. Still, the brothers’ relationship is engaging, tense and passionate, and ultimately resolved.       


Prose/Style:

The book is formatted as a third-person omniscient narration, but not really. It’s essentially from Jonah’s perspective, written after he has gained facts about events which he could not have witnessed in person, as well as narrating those events which he did witness first-hand. So, the feel of the narration is third-person omniscient because there is little question that everything written down has actually happened but, in actuality, the narration is limited. Because the portions of the novel pertaining to Matt, who is not physically present in the story, are written in epistolary form, Smith is able to get away with this somewhat; however, for the portions witnessed by Simon, Mitch or other characters, one does need to suspend analysis a bit and just let the story flow in order to enjoy it. Chapters are often headed with a character’s name, such as “Simon,” which helps the reader follow-along with who is saying what, when (although, ultimately, the entire story is Jonah’s map/journal).  Aside from the somewhat strange structure, I definitely enjoyed the language and the prose – both of which were appropriate to the age level and well-suited to the setting of the story and its tone. The pace is deliciously suspenseful, building slowly but with an almost liquid fluidity, like a syrupy trail winding its way through the desert: sticky, sweet, rich, and satisfying.      


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

One of the strangest things about the book is that it is difficult to completely like or completely hate any one of its characters (and this, incidentally, is one of the best things writers can do for their stories, in my opinion). There are complexities of personality – inner demons and better angels- associated with each of the characters, and it is up to the reader to practice compassion and understanding when dealing with them, particularly with the protagonist(s). Jonah, the narrator and main character, is not a typical hero. Mitch, the antagonist, is vile but also quite sad. Lilly is tragically desperate, seeking shelter wherever she can find it, with little concern for what it costs her. Simon is angry, tired of being treated like a child but not wholly prepared for the adult world he’s been thrust into, head-first. The book is about family and survival, it is about making difficult choices, sometimes between the lesser of two evils, and oftentimes it is about finding out how to recover after having made the wrong choices.   


Excerpt:

I pictured the first time we saw the girl, breezing past us in that Lincoln, blond hair whirling around her, her glasses tipped down, her smile, the stroke of her fingers. The teasing.

Simon tumbled the meteorite around in the sweat of his hand. I wondered what it would be like to look down at the earth, to fall, to burn brilliantly in the air like the image of the girl who passed by, kicking back dust like cosmic ash, and could she see that, now; was she up there above us?

I wondered.

We closed our eyes.

The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd

Plot/Story:

Dade Hamilton is an eighteen-year-old high school graduate. He is spending his summer working at Food World, avoiding his parents, making new friends, and keeping a secret he plans to take with him to college: he is gay. Dade becomes estranged from his “boyfriend,” Pablo, who is anything but a boyfriend, at least to Dade. Pablo is in the closet, too; but he also has a girlfriend, and he spends his time playing between the girl and Dade, never giving all of himself to either one, and never really knowing just what he wants. The confusion of which leads to terrible consequences. Although Dade’s last summer at home was supposed to be fun, it turns out to be a time of turmoil: his parents become estranged, his friends turn on him, and his job sucks. Until Alex Kincaid, the boy who dreams are made of, enters the picture. Suddenly, Dade’s summer turns around. He finds the courage to be who he is and, with the help of a friend, visiting from California, Dade heads to college a new man: positive, strong, and ready for life’s challenges.

Characterization:

Characterization and character development are strong points in Burd’s writing, at least in this particular story. His characters do not always do what I would hope or expect of them, but their unpredictability is believable and adds to their unique individualities. The Pablo character is particularly believable; his inner-conflict is painful, as is the outcome of his struggle.  Dade’s parents are bizarre, but in the “we all know a family like that” kind of way. Their desire to come to terms with Dade’s sexuality is also realistic, in that it does not go perfectly well, but it is also not an “end of the world” scenario for their family, as is often the case in YA books that explore this theme. Perhaps the three most interesting characters, though, are the main trio: Dade, Alex, and Dade’s friend Lucy. While I was disappointed with Dade’s final decision (probably because I liked Alex’s character so much and could not see myself coming to the conclusion Dade does), I can still understand why Dade felt the need to make the decision he made and, in a way, it is laudable. 

Prose/Style:

Aside from the proofreading errors (missing words, misspelled words, minor grammar oversights, etc) which are not necessarily the fault of the author, the overall prose and style of the story is right on par with the age and maturity level of the story, and with the intended audience. The language is smooth and engaging, supplementing the emotions of the story well and progressing the scenes without conflicting with or overpowering the story itself.  The narrative voice is sound and appealing; it is easy to sink into the story and find yourself looking up only after pages and pages have passed by, without your knowing it. 

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

This is a book quite simply about life and all its twists and turns. The story tackles family dynamics, infidelity, divorce, friendship (strains and strengths), coming-out and coming-of-age, first loves, sex, drugs, exploration, and substance abuse. The most important overarching theme, though, is finding one’s way, as a youth, through the mess and into one’s own. Dade is a relatively weak young man at the start of the story, a push-over. He submits to Pablo’s whims because the brief moments with Pablo make Dade feel wanted. He never questions his parents’ antics, though they are obviously unhappy and unhealthy.  He lets his “friends” abuse him, making fun of him on a regular basis and exploding rumors about him, without confutation. Through meeting Lucy, a strong, self-aware lesbian girl, and Alex, Dade’s new love interest (one who allows Dade to explore real emotions, whereas Pablo only permitted the physical, when he felt like it), Dade comes into his own. He tells his parents the truth about himself and he stands up to them and to his friends.  Dade leaves for college a changed person, confident and self-assured. He even makes the difficult choice of leaving behind what is most important to him, in order to put himself first, to take care of himself for the very first time. The Vast Fields of Ordinary is an endearing, realistic, and reassuring story about growing up without giving up; it is a story about learning how to respect others, without sacrificing one’s self. 


 

Notable Quotes:

“It’s hard to show people everything, you know?  You never know what they’ll do with it once they have it.”

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is Charles Dickens’s last and unfinished novel. It was inspired, supposedly, by Dickens’s brush with death while riding aboard a train with his wife. The train derailed, and Dickens and his wife literally watched as people were flung from a bridge, to their watery deaths. The early draft of Dickens’s second-to-last novel, Our Mutual Friend, was imperiled in the cabin ahead of his own, and that cabin was hanging over the edge of the bridge; Dickens risked his life by climbing into that cabin to retrieve the manuscript and bring it back to safety. He was reportedly haunted for the rest of his life by a dark shadow (Drood) which is said to have been the ghost of a murdered man seeking resolution/vindication from the mortal world. The back-story and history is enough to get anyone interested; but the novel itself, though unfinished, is also quite extraordinary. The prose is the most natural and flowing of any Dickens novel I have read. The situations are believable and the sometimes fanciful or caricatured personalities are done away with. The novel’s eponymous character, Edwin Drood, disappears about mid-way through the completed portion of the story. A suspect is brought in, but the readers are led to suspect another. Whether Drood is murdered, however, and, if so, who the actual culprit is, has been left to speculation because the narrative never reaches its conclusion. My edition of the book contains the famous “Trial of John Jasper” play, which was staged by some of the literary giants of the time, following Dickens’s death. Writers and critics such as George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Waugh, and G.K. Chesterton, took parts in the play, which developed extemporaneously and was one of the most popularly watched events of the day. As it is not a portion of the original book, however, I am not including it in the review (though it is highly interesting – so if you are intrigued by the story and the history around it, it is not to be missed). Lastly, the dangers of opium addiction begin to be clearly established – and Dickens’s own personal experiences with the drug in later life, including a possible self-consciousness about his own use of it and his witnessing the addiction of his good friend and fellow writer, Wilkie Collins – are brought into play. This makes the novel, though incomplete, rather powerful to me, due to its honesty and sensitivity.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

As I mention above, Dickens seems to have developed a stronger sense of true characterization in his later career. His earlier novels employ many literary devices, such as grotesques and caricatures, which are in a way cutely identifiable as “Dickensian” but which are, to me, sometimes rather annoying. While Dickens does lash out vehemently against the Philanthropists (as he does in other works) here, he is blunt and direct in the approach; he does not exactly employ a character and warp that character into representing Dickens’s vision of “The Philanthropist” but, instead, just bashes the group as a whole. There is a Philanthropist in the novel, and he does embody many of the elements which Dickens has stated in the narration are deplorable, but he is more a character than a caricature. Dickens does a great job of differentiating the many different characters, even those who come in near the “end” and are not well understood because the story is cut off prematurely. The characters are described in such a way as to be identifiable, with familiar ticks or physical quirks. Their slang and dialects are distinct, as are their mannerisms and features. What would have perhaps enhanced the characterization further, other than having completed the novel, would be a bit more time spent on development. Drood, for instance, who we pretty much understand, is not really missed when he disappears. This is a shortcoming, since he is the crux of the plot and the one person (aside from, perhaps, his “Pussy” – Rosa) whom we should care about. Similarly, Neville, the supposed antagonist, is relatively underdeveloped compared to the minor players – like Durdles and The Deputy. John Jasper, Mr. Crisparkles, and Mr. Grewgious, however, are all very well done.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

I mentioned previously how impressed I am with Dickens’s apparent growth from his earlier works to this one, in terms of his prose and style. I am easily annoyed by some of his trademark characterizations and burlesques, but seeing what he does here in Edwin Drood makes me extremely interested, and much more compelled, to read more of his late works, like Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House or Hard Times. This was also visible in Great Expectations, though I think it is most prominent here. Dickens employs a rather straightforward style, and his prose is much more conversational and accessible, though still beautifully wrought. He introduces snippets of letters and song or poetry to break the monotony of prose, which advances the story quite well and adds a welcome and entertaining level to the story. This edition also includes original illustrations which are beautifully done and allow the reader a pictographic point of reference, as it were – an image of the scene, with characters drawn in the style of the times, wearing the clothes and expressions of the period. I was highly receptive to their inclusion.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

What I found most intriguing about this novel is the personality which Dickens gives the work overall. I am deeply saddened that the book was never completed, because I truly believe it may have been one of his crowning achievements. Dickens was always a writer who exposed social injustices, particularly in regards to poverty and religion, having experienced a childhood of nearly absolute deprivation; but he gets even more personal with this work. Many believe the character, John Jasper, to be a re-imagining of Dickens’s feelings toward his embarrassment of a son, Sydney, who racked up enormous debt in Dickens’s name and was ultimately banished from the Dickens home. Also, it is believed that one of Dickens’s great regrets was marrying so young – which is clearly expressed in the tormented relationship of Edwin and Rosa, which is eventually broken off, mutually, by the two. And, of course, as I mentioned above – Dickens’s mental anguish and torment since his brush with death, intensified perhaps by his (likely) use of opium, are all present within the text. The amount of “self” which Dickens exudes in this work is touching and painful, like a scarred wound, unveiled at last by an old writer to his loyal but ignorant readers. It is almost as if Dickens was writing his own eulogy – a farewell in swan’s song, putting his mind at rest before the long, terrible, and permanent final rest.

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“The cramped monotony of my existence grinds me away by the grain.”

“Circumstances may accumulate so strongly even against an innocent man, that directed, sharpened, and pointed, they may slay him.”

“Stranger, pause and ask thyself the question, canst thou do likewise? If not, with a blush retire.”

Tricks by Ellen Hopkins

Tricks is the separate but interwoven and common-themed stories of five average teenagers, between the ages of 15-18. Eden is a genuinely nice person, though not nearly as much of a repentant Christian as her Pentecostal-Priest father and sycophantic mother would want her to be; she falls in love with a boy who, though decent and Christian, is outside their uber-stringent faith and, because of this, she gets shipped off to a religious youth prison, where the parents hope to have the devil exorcised out of her (because a teenager falling in love out of wedlock must equate to possession). Seth is a gay teen, about to graduate from a rural Indiana high school. He falls for an older man in Kentucky who eventually deserts him and, after delicate letters between the two are disclosed to Seth’s father, he is kicked out and forced to give himself up to older men in order to keep himself housed and fed.

Whitney seems to come from the most stable place. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA with her mother and sometimes with her father (who spends most of him time in San Francisco, on business). She has an older sister who is on college and who tends to steal the lime-light; but Whitney meets a nice boy who treats her right, until she gives him her virginity. After that, she is never quite the same. She becomes vulnerable to the types of advances that a handsome, well-practiced pimp might play on her. Ginger has had a horrible life, since about the age of ten, when her hooker mother started selling Ginger to her clients as well. Ginger is still a decent girl, though, who loves her grandmother and who does all she can to help take care of her mother’s other children, since no one else will. She escapes with her girlfriend (lesbians – to clarify), only the escape isn’t much of an escape at all. Ginger is forced to turn herself into her mother in order to survive.

Finally, we have Cody, a well-meaning, typical teenage boy – he has friends, girlfriends, and a dopey job. He likes sex and gambling and driving around in his car. He has a troubled younger brother, but a great mother and step-father. Then, the step-father passes away, the house is threatened to be taken from them, Cody’s gambling problem leads them further and further into debt and, suddenly, Cody realizes he must find ways – even the most horrifying and degrading ways to a teenage boy – to care for his family. These five characters are “the tricks.” They all find their ways – willingly or not – from their hometowns across the country (Indiana, Idaho, California) to the breeding ground of sin and depravity, Las Vegas. Here, their separate stories are woven into one harrowing song.

Each of the characters’ stories is well-developed and believable, though terrifying and sad in its own way. While it can be a bit difficult to follow the timeline, since each small chapter is a new narrator, it is still possible to distinguish between the two male characters, for instance, and the three females. Still, much of this is due in part to the scenery and the characters surrounding them, not to mention the subject matter. When sexuality is one of the main forces, it makes it much easier to recall which character is in play at the moment. The characters’ language and tone –dialect, slang, inflection, vocabulary, etc. – were nearly identical, though they were all from different social, religious, and economic backgrounds and from different parts of the country. This was, in my opinion, one failing of the novel. That being said, each of the characters did show some growth (negative or positive) throughout their own portions of the book. Each character changed in some way, and so was distinguishable from his or herself when comparing the start of his or her journey to the end of it. Had this not been accomplished, I do not know whether the book would have served much purpose at all; fortunately, the argument is moot because the characters did experience much, and changed in many ways, even though it was hard to tell who was talking when (I sometimes had to flip back a few pages to see the name of the speaker at the start of the segment).

I was intrigued by and happy with the prose and style over-all. The narrative is broken up into little pieces of intermingling story-telling. Each character’s story progresses in time but the stories are split up so that the characters have equal speaking time, and so the reader gets to see where each character is and what he or she is doing as time moves forward. Also, it is written in a type of free-verse which, fortunately, is actually just free prose. There are interesting short poems that start each chapter and that (I noticed after two or three) contain a one-sentence subject matter indicator taken from each poem. Also, the final line from one story becomes the entrance line and/or theme for the next character’s story. It was all quite cute – I’m not sure how else to put it. It works very well, it is engaging and it moves the story along very well. Though the entire book also appears to be written in verse, due to the structure, it is not. Given the sensitive subject matter and the need to connect each of these individual characters with an over-arching thematic element, I think the style was a good choice – it allows the book to work as a cohesive collection rather than a hodgepodge of inter-connected but spliced short-stories.

I truly enjoyed the many ways which the book’s structure allowed the story to work together as one larger element. The short poems and creative threads which wove from one story to the next, though the characters had nothing to do with one another, was great – because the characters were all dealing with the same issues: survival, sexuality, abuse, and making adult choices. Being a J.D. Salinger fan, I cannot help but think how horrified he would be to read a work like this, which places young adults in such dangerous, precarious situations, with no real hope in sight. A majority of the five characters do not “get out” of their situations and this, in a way, makes the book hard to like. It also garners a great respect for the author. The subject matter she delves into here is not fun or light-hearted, so one would hope for a happy resolution, at least, particularly since the subjects are children. Hopkins knows, though, that un-happy endings do happen, particularly to these groups of children impacted in such a way – forced to sell their bodies to survive; caught in an inescapable web of drugs and abuse; lost to any chance at resolution or reunion with their families. As an end note, I can understand why parents would not want their children reading this book. It is scary and it is dangerous. If I were a parent, I would be horrified to learn that my children were exposed to these types of themes, this type of language. That being said, if I were a teenager – I would absolutely pick up a book like this, in part because of the dangerous elements and also in part because I was a teenager like these teenagers; I knew kids who were in trouble, kids whom no one knew how to talk to, whom everyone whispered about. Perhaps, if I had more exposure to responsible literature, done for a purpose and not just to be shocking or pornographic, I might have had a better understanding of what was happening around me; of how to deal with it; of where to get help.

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 5.0

Recommended Reading: Bending Boundaries

i4ndexWhat is the heart and soul of literature? What is the purpose of a reading-driven life? I believe people who read a lot, and with variety, are uniquely placed to learn more about the world, its history and its people, and to become more compassionate, tolerant, and patient because of their reading experiences.

These are the real reasons why I love to read the classics. Yes, they’re an escape; they can be beautifully written, exciting, scary, and emotionally charged. But, mostly, they teach me, and show me, more about the world and its people and places than anything else ever could.

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The books below are some of my favorites, and they’ve all helped me to experience the world in ways that I couldn’t possibly in my own life. They’ve transported me to a different world, taught me about different cultures, and helped me step into the shoes of people who are different from me. From the poverty and union movements of French miners to the experience of Jewish people during the Holocaust; from the lives of women, gay and straight, to the experience of black men and women, Latino immigrants, German philosophers, religious leaders and spiritual seekers, and the mentally and physically disabled. The books below can teach us so much about the world, past, present, and future.

Even dystopian fiction like A Handmaid’s Tale helps us to explore gender roles and the dangerous, complex, and unfair power structures established to keep women subservient. I am not going to write specific thoughts on these, and there are so many more I could have included, but I do highly recommend the list of books below. I’ve reviewed some of these here at Roof Beam Reader. Unfortunately, I read a number of them before I began blogging, so I don’t have reviews to share.

  1. Germinal by Emile Zola
  2. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  3. The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes
  4. Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane
  5. Angels in America by Tony Kushner
  6. Night by Elie Wiesel
  7. The Diary of Anne Frank
  8. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  9. Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark
  10. Rain God by Arturo Islas
  11. Memory Mambo by Achy Obejas
  12. Wonder by RJ Palacio
  13. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  14. A Rasin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
  15. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  16. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
  17. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  18. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  19. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
  20. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Which books have allowed you to truly step into another’s shoes? To experience a completely different lifestyle? Please share your own recommendations!