LIS 7220 – In the Shadow of Blackbirds

It’s October 1918.  The U.S. has been at war with Germany & Friends for over a year, entangling itself into what would be contemporaneously known as the Great War.  And an influenza epidemic is sweeping the globe, killing and infecting millions, and adding fears of disease to American paranoia of German aggression.  And Mary Shelly Black is stuck dealing with it all as a sixteen-year-old.

Oh, and by the way, after a near-death experience, she has the spirit of her recently-deceased boyfriend hanging around with her, too.

After reading Out of the Easy, a historical fiction novel I actually liked, I approached In the Shadow of Blackbirds with an attitude of let’s get ‘er dun!!  And not only did I read a story just as engaging, I think this was the first work of fiction I ever read concerning the paranormal, regardless of the existence of ghosts or a spirit world.  I’m surprised I haven’t read more books like this sooner.

I was impressed that the novel approached the paranormal in a way that didn’t argue for or against its existence, but interwove the paranormal into the story about Mary and Stephen’s continued romance after Stephen’s death. Through Mary’s eyes, readers experience the Great War for non-combatants, and experience the notorious Spanish influenza and the mess it left in its wake.  With Mary’s volunteer work at the Red Cross, readers learn about what the soldiers who survived the war suffered, both physical and mental injury, and the loss of innocence of a generation of Americans.  In all reality, what reason to go to war is ever a good one?  But I digress.

We learn about World War I in schools, about how the decades-long competition between European powers exploded into a conflict unprecedented in history, and how America swooped in at the last second in order to save the day and, in Woodrow Wilson’s words, “make the world safer for democracy.”  And yes, there was a flu, but we got over it.  We won the war, didn’t we?

Maybe so, but at the price of disillusionment from which it took more than two decades for the US to recover.  And, as history tells us, it didn’t end all wars.

Got your gun, Johnny?

LIS 7220 – Out of the Easy

If anyone wanted to meet Public Enemy No. 1 of reluctant readership, you’re reading his blog post.  This especially goes for historical fiction.  And that I studied history in college makes that pretty damn ironic.

I dreaded Sepetys’s work because my previous experience with historical fiction was trying to plow through the works of James Michener and Edward Rutherford. But I started reading it, and realized how good it was, and how much I wanted to keep reading. And I may read her debut novel now.

I think what helped me stay engaged was the book’s setting in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where I vacationed two years ago and loved it. Sepitys intelligently immerses the reader in the French Quarter of 1950 without drowning the reader in long, overt descriptions. She only includes what is crucial for the story, just like any good fiction writer. While the murder of Forrest Hearne is fiction, the vice and underground surrounding it is genuinely similar of New Orleans throughout its history. There was even mention of hoodoo, which is similar but still different from voodoo, but practices still tied to the area.

The story itself was also very believable.  Josie is a strong female protagonist trying to move forward with life with everything in the Big Easy trying to keep her back: an illicit pedigree, a relatively-low socioeconomic situation, and her mother’s ghosts trying to take a turn on Josie (no pun intended).  She knows what she wants, and, qualms-riddled hesitancy notwithstanding, she goes for it, hell bent for leather. While things don’t turn out exactly as planned (much to my chagrin, but c’est la vie), Josie does eventually move forward.

How could anyone not relate to this kind of story or its characters?  Moreover, who said historical fiction had to be wordy and boring?

I think the hidden beauty of young-adult literature, which historical fiction especially highlights, is that it offers a story and says, “Quit trying to eat the whole pizza, just have a slice.”

Suddenly I wish all fiction was written this well.

LIS 7220 – How It Went Down

Tariq is dead.  The shooting is decried as race-based, but his shooter, Jack Franklin, claimed self-defense and was let go by the police.  A community is left without clear answers.  Tariq’s fellow 9-5 Kings stew and plot revenge, while his best friend Tyrell wants no part of it.  His family is left to mourn and wonder why.  And the media’s all over it.

How It Went Down masterfully blends the themes of urban life, gang loyalty and pressure, racial tension, and media sensationalism.  It is realistic fiction that reads like street lit, and may most appeal to readers whose lives were either affected or touched by ordeals such as the deaths of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.  The narratives from differing characters’ points of view highlights the “he-said, she-said” complication of such events, through the portrayal of a fictional shooting death. The story highlights the notion that the justice system often doesn’t work, and that nobody can ever know all the answers.

Simply put, the book offers a window to such tragedy for readers, and provides perspective to tragedy.

I felt the book most importantly addressed the role the media plays in such events.  In addition to the press, Reverend Alabaster Sloan (perhaps meant to represent Al Sharpton?) tries to highlight continued discrimination against black people through his sensationalism of the event, albeit somewhat selfishly.  The reporter who continually tries to question Jennica also epitomizes this phenomena.  This calls into question the fine line between a tragic shooting death and the drama thereof that news and media outlets disseminate, for better or for worse.

In 1996, the rock band Rush (known best for songs like “Tom Sawyer” and “The Spirit of Radio“) released “Test for Echo,” a song that addressed the simultaneous violence and voyeurism of society, and the exploitative media coverage thereof.  Neil Peart’s lyrics (co-written with Pye Dubois, with whom he also collaborated on “Closer to the Heart,”) match the grittiness of the topic and the music of the song.  (A fan-made video montage of news events from the past two decades, with the song as accompaniment, can be viewed here.  As a fair warning, the video contains violent footage.)

Perhaps two decades later, society, and especially the media, are no different.

(On a side note, I started reading this book as e-book, then finished it as a printed volume.  The printed volume is a more fulfilling experience than the e-book because it does not replicate text-based art that appears in the printed volume.)

LIS 7220 – Fat Boy vs the Cheerleaders

I listened to this on audio CD, and was impressed by the narration, done by Nick Podehl.  He was passionate, he was adolescent, and given that the book is about Gabe explaining to a Mr. Rodriguez his story behind robbing the vending machine, the tone was defensive, perfect for the book.

The reason this would appeal to readers is because Geoff Herbach gets it.  He understands the plight of high schoolers who want to participate in the activities they desire, who aren’t happy with their bodies, like Gabe, and want change and want to take change into their own hands.  At least, through writing this book, one cannot help but feel like he gets it.

I couldn’t help but feel like a teenager again as I listened to the story.  The questions that permeated my mind, inevitably relating to high school in reality, were diverse and numerous.  Why do band geeks get all the flak for being themselves?  Why would schools rather fund dance squads, which may be magnets for creepy old guys to come watch the aerobatic activities of teenaged girls? Why not fund both?  What is wrong with school boards that do this?

I was quite pleased to find out that, in the end, the vending machine was removed, funding was left to the people of Lake Minnekota to decide, and that Mr. Rodriguez was Gabe’s attorney.

I hope Lake Minnekota did the right thing and voted “yes.”

LIS 7220 – The Family Romanov

Since I studied history for my undergraduate major, I relish the opportunity to write a post on one of the historical non-fiction works for this week.

I liked that the book connected the concurring histories of the final ruling Romanov family and their demise, and the restlessness of their subjects and the lead up to the Russian Revolution, to tell the story of how Russia went from being an autocracy to a democracy to another autocracy, the early Soviet Union.  The author didn’t burden the reader with lengthy tangents or complex vocabulary.  Additionally, the narrative is interspersed with excerpts from contemporary (or “primary,” as is known in the business) sources to further illuminate the story the book tells.  Not only is the narrative accessible, by virtue of its use of documents and photographs to support the narrative, it’s properly researched history.

A possible red flag concerns the photographs of Rasputin’s cadaver and the room where the Romanovs died.  The necessary maturity needed to stomach these parts of the history, much less the photos, is clear.  On the same token, this is history, truthfully represented without sugar-coating or embellishment.  In light of school curricula altered pursuant to either moral or political agendas (not unlike Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen), young adults need more literature like this book.  History can be age-appropriate (in terms of readability), but it can also be truly represent its topic, and this book is a perfect example.

LIS 7220 – Noggin

Note: Since I moderated a book club discussion of this work for class, I considered it only fitting to write a blog post on it here, especially since the author, John Corey Whaley, and I had a Twitter conversation about it.

We read Noggin for the week we discussed science fiction, although this is a story seems like science fiction in simply the premise of the story.  It takes place in a modern, realistic Kansas City, MO setting, and the main character is a 16-year-old who has recently been re-awoken after five years of dormant cryogenic hibernation, then receiving a donated body to replace his former cancerous one.  In the world of Noggin, transplanting bodies in this manner is an actual procedure, the protagonist, Travis Coates, being only the 2nd survivor of this procedure.  While the book doesn’t tell us in great anatomical detail how the procedure works or why it succeeded, Travis nonetheless gets a second chance at life.

Except he’s been practically dead for 5 years, his best friend is in college, and his former girlfriend is now engaged to another guy.  So his resurrection is where the fun starts.

There’s a lot that young adults can find pleasurable, if not relatable, in this work.  The book again demonstrates the strength of first-person narration, in creating a multidimensional protagonist who stops at nothing to get Cate back, which seems natural for a 16-year-old who has missed out on the last 5 years, even if it borders on the obsessive.  He wants his old life back, even though this is impossible, and he struggles to realize this.  But such a lesson is a tough one for any teenager undergoing a radical life change to learn.  As we soon discover, Travis is forced to learn this axiom the hard way, especially in light of learning of his parents’ divorce.

Thus, while the body transplant exemplifies the author’s intention to channel his “inner Vonnegut” and “ground something absurd in reality,” (see his Tweet regarding this: the story becomes believable, and has a quality narrative, because of the after effects of this procedure, as well as the youth and humanity of the main character.  Kurt Vonnegut was forever a master at incorporating the absurd into realistic fiction, but perhaps Whaley is a member of the latest generation of this writing, as well as a forerunner of this within young adult literature.  I can’t wait to read more.

LIS 7220 – Fangirl

This was the first book I ever completed as an e-book, much less on an iPad, so accordingly, this blog post is also written on an iPad.  The main takeaway from this experience was the convenience of borrowing the book from a cloud-based server, plus being able to control the font size and not having the physical book laying around for my chew-happy puppy to find.  But I can now say I’m an e-book fan.

Fangirl certainly qualifies a new adult novel, since most characters are in their late teens and early 20s, although the sexuality in action is implied rather than actual.  Drama, however, is in no short supply: Cath not fitting in, Wren’s emerging alcoholism, their father’s workaholic tendencies, etc.  The reader witnesses the internal drama of Cather as she quite negatively mulls the prospect of her and Wren’s mother coming back into their lives.  And why shouldn’t she?  More on that later…

I can understand why this book would pale in comparison to a work like Eleanor and Park, although that can best be explained as Eleanor and Park being hard to follow in terms of literary achievement.  This is not to say, however, that Fangirl is without achievement.  It captures the essence of first-year undergraduate culture, especially living in the dorms and moving away from home for the first time.  And as many find first (real) love in college, the book also captures this phenomena successfully.  Additionally, the book opens up the world of fan-fiction for the reader to see.  For young adults who are fanfic enthusiasts, this book is an affirmation; for those on the outside looking in, it makes the mystery of fanfic understandable.

The book may be slow and non-exciting in parts, but in terms of capturing the lingering effects of parental abandonment in childhood, Rainbow Rowell is a master.  Ask anyone who experienced this, including myself.  This takes years of healing to recover from, if at all, which is why any parent who does this to a child at any age is a coward.


Do you see her?
Her silver dress glimmers in the flashing lights
Her hair moves side-to-side in concert with her hips
The dress hugs them like a coat of paint on a wall
Fitting her form perfectly and without objection
Her eyes betray her desire
She wants to dance
She wants you

She’s on her feet
Waiting for you to leave that chair
Leave that table
Leave that whiskey-ginger
You’re the man of her dreams
Her knight in shining armor
If for the length of a song or two

You rise and you take her hand
And you both part the sea of people
And blend into the crowd
Engaged in kinetic orgy
Hips and feet and hearts and minds
The fast beat of the dubstep
Blaring out of the speakers
The DJ controlling every beat

And you submit to the rhythm
The music is now your master
Your reason to live, your soulmate
It completes you
It is your religion
A new cult, a new way of life
You worship the beat to which you

©2015 by Billy Hinshaw – all rights reserved.

LIS 7220 – The Story of Owen

I found this a fun read!  It was a breath of fresh air from my heretofore conception of fantasy fiction as existing in a medieval world, and I found it an enjoyable story.  Others may also find it enjoyable as well, regardless of whether one also accounts for the book’s political subtext.

One thing I think the book hit out of the park was the setting.  Imagine taking the everyday modernity of rural Ontario, and adding to reality’s equation these carnivorous and stupid creatures known as dragons, simple as that.  And there exists a science to thwarting death by dragon that has been tested and proven over history (i.e. not idling the car for heat, not having bonfires, not starting an automobile company), because dragons are as clear and present of a danger as touching electrical wires without rubber gloves or getting into a motorcycle crash without a helmet.  This story was clearly different from dragon tales taking place in a medieval fantasy, but it kept me reading.

Additionally, a young adult reader may find interesting the main characters going off to slay dragons by night, and running to and from classes in school, trying not to be late, trying to study for that big quiz, what a life!  How cool would it be sixteen and have a job as a songwriter for an up-and-coming dragon-slayer?  Better yet, what if you got to hang out with a girl like Siobhan with an ear for music composition, providing a companionship independent of clichéd teenage romance and thus free of complication?  Nay, it is possible for teenage boys and girls to have a platonic relationship. (You listening, Travis Coates?)

Now, about the whole “socialist tract” thing: I’m not a political activist, and I tend to ignore any hidden meaning in literature, since I read fiction for the entertainment of a good story.  Looking back at the text, it’s hard to deny the allusions to climate change and industrialism, the alternate histories in which dragons play a pivotal role, or that Lottie and Hannah, Owen’s guardians, are a same-sex couple, and nobody cares.  Nonetheless, I found it a good story to read, and I’m not arguing that climate change, international relations, or marriage equality are not important issues to discuss or follow, or that I ignore them completely.  As a consumer of literature, I’m simply asserting my right to enjoy a good story, all these aspects notwithstanding.  If that makes me a less-than-critical reader, so be it.

LIS 7220 – The Fault in Our Stars

I admit I saw the movie before reading the book, so I had a cinematic head start.  I knew all about the story of Hazel and Gus, that Gus would ultimately succumb to the cancer that took his leg, and that he would leave her with a happy memory of him more permanent than life itself, just as Gus wished.

Although the movie influenced my concretization of the story, and its action and characters, I read the book anyway to witness John Green’s literature, and I fell right into its verisimilitude.  I enjoyed the book, and found it to be a very quality work.  The reader glimpses cancer, a very real and unpredictable problem, but is not buried with academic explanations of it.  Hazel explains and relates the cancer accompanying her and how she copes with it on a daily basis, and it influences her approach to life, sarcastic and even sometimes nihilistic, not only with her reluctance to attend a cancer support group, but also with her opinion of life as imminent oblivion, which contrasts Augustus’s desire for legacy.  Green could have kept the narrative for himself in third-person, and would have needed more exposition than necessary or proper.  That he lets Hazel tell the story adds to the power of the book, and it works better for the book, espeically as a work of young-adult fiction.

The book is a serious albeit empowering read, as it reflects characters who daily confront their own mortality and fragility.  This lends itself to the characters’ dialogue, which ranges from literary to philosophical, and may strike readers as implausible, since Hazel and Gus are both teenagers.  However, this reflects the condition of being biologically young yet psychologically old.  An aged soul also comes with growing up in a broken home (like Eleanor in Eleanor and Park), trying to survive in the wilderness after a plane crash (like Brian Robeson in Hatchet), or being an orphan and an ostracized member of society (like Ponyboy Curtis in The Outsiders).  This motif frequently recurs in young-adult literature, and having grown up with an abusive father and being bullied in school, this is exactly how the book resonated with me.  I came away from the book longing to know Hazel as a real person, to share in both her grief of losing Gus, and her joy in remembering his legacy, which is all he ever wanted.

And in the end, Gus gets his wish.