Tag Archives: 3.5 Star Books

Westlake Soul by Rio Youers

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With a premise like this, ‘Westlake Soul’ could be an absolute horror show, but Rio Youers’ skillful blend of liberating fantasy and harrowing reality manages not to fall into this trap; bittersweet, moving, quietly heartbreaking, definitely. A morbid geek show of suffering and tragedy, no. Bad things sometimes happen to good people; the peculiarly named Westlake Soul (former surfing champion and the son of aging hippies) is all too familiar with this. Like Shawn McDaniel, the protagonist of Terry Trueman’s ‘Stuck in Neutral,’ Westlake is trapped within his own body and rendered thoroughly unable to communicate.

While ‘Stuck in Neutral”s principal character suffered from debilitating Cerebral Palsy, Westlake is in a persistent vegetative state following a near-fatal surfing accident. A keen mind trapped within  a broken body, Westlake cannot convince anyone of his sentience. So when his grieving parents decide to disengage his feeding tube, Westlake must prepare for a slow, painful death by starvation while his parents, totally unaware of his cognizance, look on.

This all sounds terribly grim and depressing, but the subject matter is lightened somewhat by Westlake’s sense of humor and resilience concerning his mortality as well as his best-kept secret- Having had 100% of his mental capacity awakened by the accident, Westlake discovers the powers of astral projection and ESP, as well as an active fantasy life (?) where he plays the role of an able-bodied superhero battling the evil Doctor Quietus, the very personification of death.

In between astral projecting himself wherever he wants, carrying on long conversations with Hub, the family dog, and falling in love with his beautiful carer Yvette, Westlake watches as everyone he loves gives up believing in the possibility of his recovery. He is the ultimate passive observer- as inert and impotently defenseless as a lawn ornament, but mentally able and even capable of the most extraordinary power of all, finding humor and hope in his terrible situation.

Sometimes Westlake’s character seems a bit glib and immature as well as overly sexual minded (you can astral project anywhere in the universe so you go to Angelina Jolie’s pad to watch her take a shower??) but we have to remember we are reading the narrative of a 21-year-old guy, one who just months ago was getting smashed at beach parties and nightclubs. The caretaker eroticism is a little icky (the protagonist yearning over his dream girl while she changes his diaper,) but it’s not as disturbing as Yvette’s apparent returning of his affections.

What was with that kiss? Yes, Westlake is sentient and fully willing, but Yvette has no way of knowing that. While Westlake was enthusing about how awesome the kiss was, I kept thinking “she kissed a diaper-clad vegetable? With tongue?” Good luck finding a novel where a male caretaker smooches (i.e. molests) a female patient in a persistent vegetative state. On the other hand, the author does an amazing job of balancing the fantasy elements (Doctor Quietus and Westlake’s special powers) with the heartrending family drama and emotional significance of the family’s final decision.

I’m not ashamed to admit I teared up twice during this novel’s touching passages regarding love and mortality. When you think about it, Westlake’s a pretty profound guy, albeit young and rather immature in some respects. “Westlake Soul” has been described as a superhero book, but to call it a comic book-esque novel would be to misrepresent it, as well as it’s considerable depth. “…Soul” is less of a book about heroes, super or otherwise, and more a book about life- the unfairness of it, but also the beauty, the wonder, and the gift of being human. Westlake reminds us how tenuous our fragile grip on life is, and how we can’t take that fragility for granted. And he makes you laugh as well. That perhaps, is the greatest gift he imparts.

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The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford

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Sheila Burnford’s animal saga is a nice little story that somehow doesn’t manage to achieve greatness at any point through it’s duration. Mind you. every child should read this charming novel once in their lives, and for the most part it has managed not to age since it’s first publication in the sixties; it’s a sweetly rendered love letter to house pets and the great Canadian wilderness as well as a suitable read aloud.

Still, The Incredible Journey’ fails to be truly riveting, and I’m trying to put my finger on the reason I feel this way. The story follows an irresistible bull terrier protagonist, Bodger, and his two animal friends (a Labrador and a Siamese cat) as they brave a arduous trek across Canadian soil to find their beloved masters. There are many challenges along the way, of course, presented in episodic fashion, and Carl Burger provides lovely illustrations portraying the animals’ daunting journey.

Two film adaptations came out after the books release, a 1963 version, the more realistic one by far. and a tame Walt Disney remake in 1993, a bastardization in many ways while still remaining a relatively charming family film. People who watch the 1993 film might get a confused notion about what the book itself is about. While “Homeward Bound” (as the remake is called) applies celebrity voice actors to the animal characters, there is barely any dialogue at all in the book. The animals certainly don’t talk.

Instead of giving the animals human voices, the novel concentrates one portraying the canines and their feline companion with their animal behavior intact while still making them likable and endearing. This book is a little darker and much more serious than “Homeward Bound,” and sometimes comes off as a little frosty and distant without the voices of the animals we 90’s kids have come to expect from childrens’ entertainment.

While the book is much more mature and artistically sound, there are times when one gets a chilly vibe from the brief volume, where individual events and supporting characters aren’t focused on for more than a few pages. The main thing that supplies this book with life is the exquisite charcoal drawings, cozy and warm additions to the text.

The real strength of ‘The Incredible Journey’ is Burnford’s obvious skill writing prose as well as her ability to make the animal characters sympathetic without having them say a single word. The old bull terrier, Bodger, will win your heart with his undying loyalty and steadfast sweetness as well as his adorable love of children and particularly the unlikely bond he shares with his feline friend, Tao.

Something about this book- maybe the slim size- makes it feel a bit unsubstantial, like a sweet that you savor before it all too quickly disappears down your throat and into your stomach, leaving you hungry for more. However, it’s a book that kids and adults should like just fine and it endearing, if like the metaphorical sweetie, not quite filling.

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

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This is one of those rare cases where the book can not compare artistically with its movie adaptation. Sure, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s “Let the Right One In” has more detail, and even works to a certain extent. But I actually think the movie was improved somewhat by being stripped down to its bare essentials, and eliminating extraneous subplots. The book is a pretty good read, but it hardly seems to be in league with the masterpiece the Swedish film version was.

Twelve-year-old Oskar Eriksson is a bullied misfit kid who wants to get back in a big way at his cruel tormentors. He is a overlooked resident of Blackeberg, whose surrounding areas have been plagued by a series of ritualistic killings. Oskar is fascinated by the sense of unease and the corresponding murders and even keeps a scrapbook containing clips of violent crimes. Neither Oskar’s fragile mother or his alcoholic, divorcee dad seem to notice Oskar is harboring a Antisocial streak. But when you’re afraid to go to school every day, life can do that to you.

Then Oskar meets Eli, a strange, thin, androgynous child who encourages him to fight back against his bullies. Eli’s frail façade hides an insatiable bloodlust, but Oskar finds himself strangely drawn to her. How far will Oskar go to protect Eli’s secret? “Let the RIght One In” is a compelling take on vampire lore, but I think it tries too hard to scientifically explain vampirism. Some things are better left unsaid.

The book also offers descriptions of what it feels like to be bitten by a vampire and to turn into a vampire, which is pretty cool. However, it also contains too many characters and feels unnecessarily long. Some passages better explain things left ambiguous in the film, like the role of Eli’s caretaker, Hakan, or the relationship between Oskar and his dad.

In the film, Oskar had a certain innocence and vulnerability that mad him very compelling, despite the indisputable fact that he was a very troubled little boy. The child actor gave that innocence creditability. In the book, Oskar is mostly creepy, someone you don’t want to meet in a dark alley despite his youth and small stature. In this novel, Oskar harbors a fantasy of seeing someone executed in an electric chair and even sets some desks in his classroom on fire (okay, his bullies’ desks, but still, that’s a big safety hazard!)

Oskar still certainly isn’t a completely unsympathizable character, but maybe you have more of a propensity to feel for him when you aren’t looking into that troubled little mind of his. Eli, however, is as compelling as ever, and you get a better sense of who she is the novel, as well as get a more complex look into the grey areas in between the elements of her ambiguous gender.

There’s is some interesting further development of the side characters, but mostly the wealth of detail on the supporting players seems a little ‘meh.’ Despite my quibbles, this book may be still worth reading if you want a more complete picture of a story that proves the vampire genre is not dead. The murderous, predatory class of vampires, not the sparkling one.

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Reclaiming the Sand by A. Meredith Walters

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Wow. I have quite the love-hate relationship with this book, much like the novel’s protagonist, Ellie, has with her frienemy-turned-romantic-interest Flynn Hendrick. On one hand, it was a mostly well-written story and a well-done depiction of a young adult on the Autism Spectrum, which was good. It depicts the Asperger’s character as multi-faceted and a sexual being, and the characters were pleasingly three-dimensional. But on the other hand, it was so damned depressing. I kept having to put it down and not wanting to return to it, because it just barely involved me enough to move past the uber-heavy subject matter.

Flynn, who has Asperger’s, is tormented by a gang of kids as a teenager, flanked reluctantly by the girl he falls hard for, Ellie McCallum. In the privacy of Flynn’s home, Ellie is his ‘friend.’ At school, with the clique watching, she is anything but. Flynn, an innocent, naive boy with a literal mind and a blunt tongue, can’t understand why Ellie hurts and betrays him again and again. Years later, Ellie runs into Flynn again when he returns to his hometown of Wellston, West Virginia. She’s still the same small-minded pathetic person, and he’s the same shy, awkward young man.

The book is narrated in alternating chapters by Flynn and Ellie. Flynn’s POV sections are set in the past, when he is brutalized by Ellie’s friends while Ellie watches and doesn’t lift a finger to help. Ellie’s chapters are set present-day, as she and Flynn reconnect and Ellie experiences an emotional awakening. The flashbacks are devastating, but the present-day chapters have an unnerving vibe because of how cruel Ellie was to Flynn, so watching them get cozy is discomforting to say the least. The only thing I can compare it to is a romance where the rapist hooks up with victim. What Ellie did to Flynn was emotional rape, and Flynn’s easy forgiveness of his tormenter is heartbreaking.

Yet, despite everything, I DO feel for Ellie. She’s a broken girl who grows up to be a troubled woman, hanging out with the same trash that accompanied her through the high school halls. These include Dania, expectant mother and drunk/addict extraordinaire, and Stu, a cruel and often downright sociopathic creep who callously uses women for sex. Ellie narration explains her actions somewhat, and she grows hugely as a character throughout the duration of the novel.

The writing is mostly good, though I found some of the lovey-dovey and sex scenes to contain more cheese than necessary. Ellie’s emotional dependance on Flynn to feel like half a person was disturbing, and I found it hard to believe that a relationship between a considerably Autistic and neurotic man and a self-loathing woman with her own baggage could work. I empathized with their love, but between Ellie’s meanness and Flynn’s tantrums, I couldn’t fully ‘ship’ this couple.

Although I found the subject matter painful, I am glad I read this book. The author obviously did her research on Autism, and there were many aspects of the novel I appreciated. On a side note, the editing needed a lot of work. There was a lot of incorrect homonym usage (“There” and “Their,” anyone?) and the book often read like a rough draft in terms of spelling and grammar. Although I had moments when I wasn’t enjoying this book too much, I am excited for the sequel, ‘Chasing the Tide,’ and want to continue Ellie and Flynn’s story when the novel comes out. I just sincerely hope A. Meredith Walters hires a new editor. A book I would recommend, but with some hesitation, as I think the subject matter could have been done slightly better.

Against Medical Advice by James Patterson & Hal Friedman

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As a sufferer of severe OCD, stories about the disorder have been of interest to me throughout my life. Although I wished that the boy who actually had the disorder, Corey Friedman, had written the book instead of his father (writing in his son’s voice) and bestseller James Patterson, I have to admit that they did a good job of bringing Corey’s voice to life. In this case, Corey was doubly unlucky- instead of just suffering Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, he was also afflicted with a particularly extreme case of Tourette’s Syndrome. His woes began, like me, when he was five years old, when he began to tic daily, a cycle that included shaking his head violently, breaking his teeth by biting down on them with brute force, and tearing his muscles with jarring bodily movements.

Corey’s life came to a stand-still as his body began to turn against him. As he grew into a troubled teen, he found that more often than not psychiatric medications had drastic side effects, and the only ‘medication’ he could really count on was alcohol. Corey went to various therapist’s and tried various meds, but his devastating illness wouldn’t yield. Eventually, he found he had to fight ferociously for his life.

This is a heartwrenching story but also an inspiration to those who suffer from mental disorders, because Corey eventually beat his illness. I loved the subject matter of this book but sometimes found the writing a little underwhelming. It seems like Corey’s dad has to explain his son’s behavior and apologize for him in a overblown way. It also features a lot of cliche and hyperbole typically attributed to the young adult genre, i.e. ‘my face burned, my heart ached’ that I think should be cut back on. Hal Friedman often tried too hard to speak in a ‘teen voice,’ which could be just plain awkward at times.

Despite these setbacks, this is really a good read, especially for someone like me who has been on a ton of medications throughout their life. Your body gets used to the medicines to the point where they don’t even take effect anymore. It’s true, I’ve lived it. Then you go through the hassle of going on a new medication that might make you sleep all the time, etc. Except in Corey’s case, the symptoms were much more severe. This book made me realize how lucky I was when for years I felt like the most wretched person in the world because of my uncontrollable thoughts.

This book has it’s drawbacks, but it tells a good story poignantly. I was disappointed to find out that ‘Med Head: my Knock-Down, Drag-Out, Drugged-Up Battle With My Brain’ was just an adaptation of this book written to appeal to teens rather than a separate work written by Corey himself, as I thought it was at first. It was obvious Corey had a good mind beneath his ticcing, twitching, ineffectual body and I really wish him the best as he begins his normal life free of the symptoms that plagued him for years.

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Up High in the Trees by Kiara Brinkman

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Told through the eyes of a highly unusual eight-year-old boy coping with grief and the disintegration of his remaining family members, Up High in the Trees is a poetic first effort by Kiara Brinkman. Sebby has a highly sophisticated, personal, and unique voice unusual for his age group, and the story is told an undetermined amount of time after his mother is struck dead by a car in the night. Sebby, like any young boy bereaved of his mother, struggles with his loss, and his dad takes him to the summer house to recuperate, only to fall into a deep depression in which he is unable to take care of himself, let alone his bright, inquisitive son.

Many people have speculated that Sebby is on the Autism Spectrum, probably high-functioning Asperger’s, and many passages (including his sensitivities to light, color, and sound) seem to hint at this. He is never diagnosed, which is just as well, but even for a precocious boy with Asperger’s, Sebby’s voice seems highly unlikely at times. Often he seems like a psychology graduate channeling their inner child rather than a true eight-year-old. However, if you get past the initial humps (Sebby seems too sophisticated for a little kid, the other characters are a bit too thinly defined) Up High in the Trees is a compelling read.

The chapters are short and often abstract, like a fragment of a passing thought or dream. That makes it very readable, since you can read a chapter or two on a bus ride and finish them in no time at all. Sebby often fails to engage with others, living in a gauzy world where he retraces his mothers steps and treads among her memories. He and his mother shared a private world together, and now his siblings and dad are flummoxed by his failure to grieve in a normal way. What is the ‘normal’ way to grieve, anyway? Hankies and tears? Hugs and sentiments? Sebby is removed from planet Earth as most know it, preferring to chase memories of his mother than other kids.

He finds solace in an old camera, which he uses to take pictures of life as it is- without Mother. I really rooted for the reconciliation of Sebastian and Katya, a slightly older Russian immigrant. I couldn’t figure out why he was so mad at her. She was was protective and kind and even forgave him when he bit her on the shoulder! Instead, Sebby pursues friendship with Jackson and Shelly, two under-supervised ragamuffin kids who seem to engage in a lot of risk-taking activities.

I would like to read anything further that Kiara Brinkman writes. In this flawed but well-done novel, she explores being wired different in a neurotypical world, bereavement, and the meaning of family. Sebby’s brood fray and very nearly fall apart, and I guess that not all was well before his mother’s death, either.  But almost unraveling is what eventually puts them together and makes them stronger as a family. I hope you can derive inspiration from this brief but effective read.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

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10-year-old Caitlyn Smith has always coped better with her older brother Devon by her side. For a girl with Asperger’s Syndrome, support from friends and family is crucial, and Devon teaches her how to fit in in her small Virginia town. But now Devon is gone, his life taken senselessly by a school shooter, and Caitlyn must navigate the confusing and sometimes hostile world without Devon’s guiding hand. Like many people with Asperger’s, Caitlyn is a literal and black-and-white thinker, and as she struggles to understand her loss and grapples with making friends and learning empathy, she decides that ‘closure’ is something she and her father would very much like.

“Mockingbird” is lyrical and sweet, however brief. Caitlyn isn’t like a stereotypical Aspie with a robotic narration solving math problems in her head. Her voice is unique, faraway but strong and present, and she is a gifted artist. Tentatively at her counselor Mrs. Brooks’ urging she befriends a six-year-old boy whose mother was killed in the shooting, and learns to cope.

The author was inspired to write this book after the 2007 Virginia Tech Massacre. The crime was terrible, of course, but these things seem to be becoming so common that they all just sort of blur together for me. I remember Sandy Hook particularly shook me up because the victims were little kids and it was unimaginable that a grown man would want to go in there and do that to a bunch of Kindergartners.

There’s a considerable lack of depth in the secondary players (and a little bit more development of Josh, the second most interesting character, might of been in order) but this may reflect Caitlyn’s lack of understanding of her family and peers. I found myself oddly unmoved by the emotional element, although the prose is well structured. I didn’t cry or even really get sad reading it. Instead, I appreciated it, but it failed to make me experience big feelings.

Kathryn Erskine has written a sensitive book, and she has created an Aut-Lit (Autism Spectrum literature) narrative that is well-done and original. If she had written a bit more or gone deeper into the psychological/social/family aspects, it might have gotten a 4 Star Rating from me. “Mockingbird” is short and sweet, but lacks the bite or depth to make it a classic.

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