A Book Where Another Teenager Dies

I have no problem staying five feet away from the man I love, mainly because he doesn’t exist. The problem is getting one to scale my fortress of acerbic and self-deprecating sarcasm. Picture it: me in another 40 years, dead in my kitchen with my 22 cats eating my face.

That escalated quickly.

In Rachael Lippincott’s Five Feet Apart, 17-year-old Stella has spent her life in and out of the hospital with cystic fibrosis. She finds herself in the hospital for a month’s stay as she builds up her lung capacity and is dosed with antibiotics. She’s climbed the lung transplant list and now all she has to do is stay healthy enough to get that lung. Stella is in control of her illness and is getting healthy and nothing is going to stop her.

Famous last words.

Will also has cystic fibrosis. The rule with CFers is they have to remain 6 feet apart from one another at all times to keep from infecting one another’s fragile lungs. Will’s CF comes at a higher risk: he has B. cepacia, an antibiotic resistant infection. People with B. cepacia aren’t eligible for a lung transplant because the thought is if they get a lung transplant it’s a waste of a good organ.

Will’s been all around the world but not as a tourist. He’s been in hospitals trying drug trial after drug trial to treat his B.cepacia and nothing has worked. This time he’s in the hospital for a new clinical drug trial. His lung capacity is supremely low and he has no faith the new drug will work. But Will has a plan. In two weeks he’ll turn 18 and be able to make his own decisions. He’ll unplug himself from all the machines, leave the hospital, and go see the world he’s only seen from hospital windows.

As you have probably guessed, Will and Stella fall in love but they can never touch. The rule is they have to stay six feet apart. Stella decides to make her own choice, and take back a bit of her life. She changes the six feet rule to five feet. It might not seem like much, but it makes Stella feel like she’s not being controlled by her sickness.

Told from alternating perspectives, Five Feet Apart is not only about falling in love. It’s also about deciding on a future when it seems like there isn’t one. The world could probably learn a thing or two from Stella and Will about surviving and keeping the fire of hope alive.

And don’t worry. They don’t die. I wouldn’t dangle this book in front of you if another teenager died. Then again, my narration can’t always be trusted. I mean, my face is going to be eaten by a large amount of cats 40 years from now. Can you trust a book review from someone like that?

Just read the book. It’s worth it.

Forgotten Gods

I’ve often wondered what happens to gods when people move from one country to another. When mass immigration from far-flung climes began, did people bring their gods with them? Or was all that water too much to cross? Yes, people brought their beliefs and their folklore but they tucked them away in cupboards and basements in the name of assimilation. But was belief enough to lure those gods vast distances before time passed and they became entirely forgotten?

In Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, not only have people forgotten about worshiping their gods but they’ve begun to forget (and ignore) them in favor of two new gods: media and technology. The old gods have taken notice. No one sacrifices in their names anymore, their images are no longer scratched on walls, paper, or flesh.

Shadow Moon is an ex-con serving his last few days in prison. He has this overwhelming feeling that something dark is coming. He’s released three days early to attend the funeral of his wife who died in a car accident along with his best friend. At the airport on the way to the funeral, Shadow meets Wednesday, an older gentleman who seems particularly skilled in getting what he wants. At times a doddering old man and at others full of flickering eyes and thrumming lust, Wednesday offers Shadow a job. It takes some time to talk him into it, but Shadow finally agrees after seeing he has nothing left to go home to.

He becomes Wednesday’s chauffeur and gopher, driving him long distances to specific landmarks and to meet with certain people. Shadow thinks Wednesday might be a demented old man, grumbling about the old days and alluding to a coming war. He watches as the old god charms old friends like Mr. Nancy (aka Anansi from West African and Caribbean lore who takes the shape of a spider) and Ostara (better known as a pagan holiday appropriated by the Catholics into Easter) and a whole cast of gods and myths. At first, Shadow pulls a Scully (you know, from the X-Files) and doesn’t believe a word from Wednesday or the other gods until he finally has to admit all the strange happenings cannot be explained away. Shadow suffers from visions, something that never happened before he met Wednesday.

Meanwhile the ‘new gods’, representing the Internet and anything modern, kidnap Shadow and try to convince him to join their winning team and be one of the good guys. Why do they think they’re the good guys who will win? Even the Germans thought they were the good guys who would win. Each side thinks their stand is the right one. What Shadow can’t figure out is why he’s so important to both sides.

I can’t tell you that because the point of my blogs is to talk you into reading the book, a little “Hey, how are you? I think I have a story here you will like.” I hate spoilers. I especially hate reading anything that starts with SPOILERS AHEAD. Why don’t you just tell me Santa is not real or the Easter Bunny is a myth?

Fans of folklore and mythology will be entranced by this book, thoroughly enjoying the deeply created characters who stomp off the page and into the room. Who knows, it might even motivate a few people to take out their old gods, dust them off, and put them in a shrine. Would you look at the time? I have 300 candles to light and 2 hours of chanting to the ‘God of Books’ before sunrise.

Rumor Has It

What the heck must it be like to be so confident in yourself that you could see someone you like, march right up to them, and say: “You. I’m taking you home to my bed right now.” Not only to have the confidence to say that, but also the confidence to know that the person is going to nod yes, take your hand, and let you lead them to a place where you can be alone. Mind you, I’ve just downed more than half a box of cold medicine, a feat that would impress Keith Richard, so I’m also wondering how men can have sex with a lamp on or the curtains open, letting all that new moon shine down on, well, all that moon.

In Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) by L.C. Rosen, Jack is a promiscuous high school student and I mean promiscuous in the best way possible: he likes himself and he likes sex. He likes it a lot. And for that, he’s become fodder for the high school gossip mill. The girls bathroom is right next to the boys and once a week Jack enjoys a solitary cigarette while listening to the latest news about himself through the thin walls of the bathroom. Evidently, any male he makes eye contact with becomes a conquest. It’s been said he was part of a forgy (an orgy of 3 or more people). Many of the rumors about him are wrong except that he does like sex. He’s just not about doing it for popularity.

One day he opens his locker and a note slips out. It seems he has a secret admirer. He can’t tell if it’s sweet or creepy. His best friend Ben, a romantic who is still waiting on his fist kiss, thinks it’s sweet while Jenna, with her razor sharp tongue, thinks it’s a little stalkery.

Jenna got kicked off the school’s newspaper for articles like which teacher was pulled over for a DUI, so now she does online news. She wants Jack to answer sex, relationship, and life questions for her blog. He’s reluctant to put himself out there, giving advice he’s afraid might mess someone’s life up. But he starts reading submitted questions and gets hooked. His answers to questions would make Doctor Ruth turn bright red and fall off her sex therapist chair.

Jack begins to get more notes slipped into his locker. They’ve gone from sweet to restraining order worthy. The notes begin to threaten his friends and his mother. Jack’s always been close with his mom but lately he feels like they haven’t been connecting. He doesn’t know who his father is. His mom chose a sperm donor. One of the notes threatens her job. He does his best to keep the notes from her.

He confides in his beloved art teacher. (Why is there always that one teacher you know will be in your corner and fight for you? And why can’t that happen when you become an adult and get a boss?) She takes Jack and the notes to the principal. The principal basically says that Jack brings it on himself, wearing a little make up to make his looks stand out. Just when Jack is going to give up and give in to his stalker, he finds out who it is. And it’s not anyone who’d ever be on the suspect list.

Full of love, doubt, and confusion, Jack of all Hearts is about not apologizing for who you are or playing into the cliche of how everyone thinks certain people should act.

Excuse me, the other half of the NyQuil box is calling and Keith Richards is mumbling about how amazed he is someone can survive that ( except nobody can understand him so someone finds a translator.) Be yourself, have as much sex as you can, be safe, protect your heart but if it gets broken, let it be broken for awhile before you find the super glue in the junk drawer.

Unmade Families

At first it starts with the looks or rather the lack of a look. Death has an insidious way of making a person turn inward on themselves with grief. Eye contact doesn’t last long and the unending pats on the arms and bone crushing hugs that are wrapped up with so much unsaid, seem to go on forever.  Then there’s the other side of it, the people who know you’ve lost someone but they can’t bring themselves to offer any comfort. They freeze up and slide their eyes elsewhere, searching the horizon for some clue as to what to say.

After my mom died last March I went back to work after my bereavement leave, bracing myself for those who would descend on me and encase me in love and well-meaning but tired platitudes. The people I expected to find me and offer a few kind words avoided me. If we were walking on the sidewalk, they would cross the street to be free of my orbit of grief. And then there are the people who think grief has a shelf life: okay, it’s been 4 months, shouldn’t you be over this already?  Wow. With the power of that pep talk I am now free of my grief! Hallelujah! It’s a miracle! Grief has no shelf-life. There isn’t an expiration mark on me anywhere to tell me when grief will be done with me.

In Jonathan Tropper’s How to Talk to a Widower, Doug knows all about grief. His wife Hailey died a year ago in a plane crash and the man has been steeped in grief ever since. We’re talking mourning drunk every day for a year, the house packed to capacity with his dead wife’s presence. Doug’s seen as a bit of a loser. I don’t think he’s a loser but society – so good at making people miserable after being brainwashed into what they should be doing in their lives at a certain age – sees him as a slacker with no ambition.

And that was before his wife died. Before marrying Hailey, Doug just floated through life: not picking a career, going from one job to the next, excelling at being seen as a giant disappointment to his family. Especially by his father who was never an affectionate man until a stroke rewired his brain and he’s now ‘wild and unpredictable dad.’ Doug’s mother is a 1950’s throwback: a bottle of wine finished by midafternoon helped along with generous helpings of her anxiety medication.

She especially didn’t want Doug to marry Hailey. Not only was she 10 years older than Doug, but she had a teenage son to boot. But they fell in love despite the age gap and were prepared to live, well, if not happily after, at least satisfied ever after. But then Doug gets the call in the middle of the night that Hailey died in a plane crash on her way to a conference. Thus began Doug’s exile from happiness to abject despair over the loss of the love of his life.

A year goes by. Doug doesn’t see his stepson Russ much because the kid has gone to live with his father now that Hailey is gone. One night in a boozy haze, an officer shows up at the front door with Russ in tow, busted for being stoned. Russ told the cop Doug was his father. Doug thanks the officer and tucks Russ into his bed in his old room, unsure of what to do with the kid. Hailey’s dead; Russ isn’t Doug’s problem anymore.

After a full year in mourning, people begin to give Doug advice. Claire, his twin sister and a beautifully foul-mouthed banshee, tells him he needs to get laid. She’s full of advice for someone who thinks she’s not in love with her husband anymore. Bedding a random stranger is the last thing on his mind. Well, maybe not the last thing since the ethereal cougar down the street is still making him condolence meatloaf once a week and flirting with him so hard even Stevie Wonder can see it. He’s tempted but the memory of Hailey stops him-until he finally gives in. It’s as awkward and depressing as he thought it would be, but soon it becomes a regular thing with the amorous housewife who promises there are no strings attached. If you believe that, I also have tickets on a rocket ship ready to hurl through space and colonize Mars.

Meanwhile, his stepson Russ keeps getting into trouble at school and is always being bailed out by Doug. He doesn’t know what to do with the kid’s pain at losing his mother because he still doesn’t know what to do with his own pain, except for writing a massively popular blog called How to Talk to a Widower. He’s called into the school counselor’s office one day after Russ gets into a fight.

He is pleasantly surprised by the youth of the counselor and her quirky sense of humor.  He’s still boinking the luscious hausfrau, but he’s intrigued by the counselor who he accidentally runs into at the movies one day. Doug starts to feel things he doesn’t want to feel and he’s terrified. Will he ever be ready to put himself in a vulnerable position? What if Hailey was the love of his life and he spends the rest of his years comparing every woman he meets to her?

Added to the mix is his complicated relationship with his family, a family that makes the one from Arrested Development look sane. His father, once a distant man, now seems to be a different person in the second half of his life while his mother mixes booze and downers and watches the man she married decline into someone unexpected and new. Claire’s marriage seems to be imploding and his younger sister, who is savagely ambitious, needs to get the stick surgically removed from her backside. She’s about to get married to Doug’s friend. They met at Hailey’s wake and engaged in an inappropriate, non-funeral like way which Doug has not forgiven or forgotten.

In turns both hilarious and heart breaking, How to Talk to a Widower tells the story of a screwed up family, unexpected loss, and even more unexpected love in strange places.

A Thinner Elevation

When I finished Stephen King’s latest novel Elevation the other day, I couldn’t help but think of it as being related to another one of his earlier works writing under the pen name Richard Bachman: Thinner

Thinner is about a successful lawyer named Billy Halleck who is severely overweight. Driving home as he and his wife are engaging in a little hanky-panky, his car strikes and kills an old Gypsy woman. The charge of manslaughter is dropped by the judge (a personal friend of Billy’s) and as he’s leaving the courtroom, the elderly father of the woman he ran over caresses his cheek and whispers “Thinner.” I wish someone would whisper “Billionaire” or “Bestselling novelist” at me. Without the caress. It would really make my life easier, you know?

Soon, Billy begins to shed weight. At first, it’s all good because he’s morbidly obese. But he can’t stop losing weight. He begins to realize the old man cursed him. With the help of a former client with ties to the mafia, Billy tracks down the old man at a gypsy camp to ask him to lift the curse. Taduz, the old man, refuses, saying Billy has to pay for his wrongdoing. Before they leave the camp, Taduz’s great-granddaughter shoots Billy through the hand. Richie fixes him up with a mafia doctor who takes care of his hand.

Richie then goes back to the gypsy camp and goes all Godfather on them. Billy returns and Tazduz agrees to break the curse. He has a strawberry pie and has Billy drip his blood into the pie. Taduz says the curse can be lifted if someone else eats a piece of the pie. A transferred curse. The ending of Thinner is not a happy one but that’s what makes Stephen King….well, the king of horror.

King’s latest offering, Elevation, starts out with Scott Carey visiting his old doctor who retired years ago. Scott shares a wondrous and horrifying secret: even though his clothes remain the same and he doesn’t look like he’s losing any weight ,each time he gets on the scale he sees he’s lost weight. His old doctor is skeptical until Scott tells him to get a scale and he’ll make the doc a believer. Fully clothed, Scott steps onto the scale and waits for the doctor to do his thing.

Way over six feet tall and on the hefty side, Scott tells the doctor he’s losing about two pounds a day without the loss ever showing up on his body. The doc is still skeptical and tells Scott he needs to go to see a practicing doctor, get tests done, the whole she-bang. Nowhere on this planet is someone who loses weight and has nothing to show for it. Scott refuses. He’s not scared, even when the doc brings up the possibility of cancer. In fact, he’s never felt so wonderfully alive and eager to do things. He swears the doc to secrecy.

Down the block from Scott a couple moves in. They run a restaurant which is slowly tanking because they happen to be married to one another. As one kid puts it they’re “Lesbean.” One of them is a sweet heart while the other has a giant chip on her shoulder. They jog past Scott’s house and allow their dogs to use his lawn as a bathroom. And they don’t pick it up. Scott decides to confront them and does so politely. They take offense at being accused of letting their dogs poop on his lawn. They’re frosty towards him and change the path of their jog so they don’t go by his house. The small town is ripe with gossip about the female married couple. Many put their two cents in, declaring such a thing as two women married to each other an abomination. Soon, their  restaurant loses business and is on the verge of going under all because the town is not comfortable with their “lifestyle.”

Going on about his business, Scott weighs himself every day and night and sees that he’s still steadily losing weight but it still doesn’t show on his body. He’s still not afraid and in fact enters into euphoria as he gets lighter and lighter. He does the math and calculates how long he has left as his weight crumbles. He marks his calendar for when he believes he’ll cease to exist. He forms a close bond with the doc and the couple (after they patched things up and the chip falls off that woman’s shoulder) and he asks them to care for him as the pounds melt away. The due date on his calendar is counting down the days until….what? What will happen if he keeps losing weight? Scott has an idea of what’ll happen to him and decides to prepare himself.

I know many of you are Stephen King fans (I’m his number one fan) and drain his books dry as soon as they come out, but Elevation was unlike any other King book I’ve read. The story felt old and somehow familiar like catching a whiff of perfume and not recognizing the scent even though it’s on the very tip of your tongue. This tiny book can be finished in one sitting. However, after reading it you’ll wish the story had no ending and just kept going.

There you have it. Two Stephen King books about inevitable change and living with what you’ve dreamed of even if it doesn’t go the way you’ve planned.

Wheel in the Sky Keeps on Turning

Philip Tonkin is healing. Fast. It should be impossible, no, it IS impossible because he was smashed flatter than a proverbial pancake. Nearly every single bone in his body shattered and he was in a coma for six months and yet he’s awake now and beginning to move. But waking only fuels Philip Tonkin’s nightmare.

In Josh Malerman’s Black Mad Wheel it’s the 1950s and Tonkin and his band The Danes have had a brush with fame with one of their songs. They’re in a studio helping to produce another band’s music. The Danes met and formed while serving in WWII. They didn’t consider themselves soldiers, just musicians serving Uncle Sam. One day while sitting in a bar in between songs, they’re approached by a man with the government who tells them about a sound emanating from the Namib Desert in Africa. Officials haven’t been able to pinpoint the sound’s exact origin, not even after sending in two other teams who came back empty-handed.

The band agrees to give the sound a listen and back in the studio they watch the GI man put earplugs in. Never a good sign. The reel to reel is set up and PLAY is pressed. The sound begins as nothing at first and then comes out as almost more of a feeling than a sound. The band members begin to vomit and curl in on themselves with pain. The reel to reel is stopped and as the band struggles to recover physically and mentally from the eerie sound, the government man says they’ll each get $100,000 to travel to the Namib Desert and find the sound’s location. They have 24 hours to decide. After that, the deal is off the table. After mulling it over, the Danes decide to do it. If anyone can do it, a group of musicians should be able to hunt the sound down.

Sounds easy peasy, yeah?

No.

They endure the journey to the desert, flying in a military plane. Getting nearer the sound the men begin to sicken, the noise a squeezing thrum of a physical presence. The GI man sets them and all their recording equipment in the desert along with a historian, an old drill Sargent from boot camp who has been mysteriously turned out of the military. The GI man says he will be back to collect all of them in exactly two weeks, he says, and leaves them in the desert.

Then the ‘Black Mad Sh*t’ begins to hit the fan.

A band member is taken by a strange creature that leaves goat like hoof prints in the sand. They begin the search for him but he’s vanished.

In between recounting the band’s mission, Philip Tonkin wakes from his long coma in an Iowa hospital. Ellen, a nurse, has been caring for him for six months and has grown attached to him. He’s shot full of painkillers around the clock and she’s shocked that someone whose body has been nearly obliterated has not only survived but, upon waking, slowly begins to move.

His body is in ruins and his mind scarred from the desert, but he knows the rest of the Danes are still alive somewhere in that desert. But the hospital he’s in is no ordinary hospital and his doctor is ‘off’ in a way no doctor should be. Ellen does as she’s told but has begun to question the doctor’s motives. So has Philip. Something dangerous is happening. And something even worse is about to go down.

Black Mad Wheel is full of shadowy government dealings, a heavy and palpable supernatural presence, and the paranoia that the unknown is going to be weaponized before the ‘good’ guys can find it. Put your earplugs in if you don’t think you can handle it. I bought mine in bulk from Costco.

Down in Savage Land

It’s a universal truth that we can pick on our siblings and tease them mercilessly. In my case, my oldest brother used to chase me around the house wearing this hideous chicken mask with neon green curls. Can you guess what I might have talked about during a few therapy sessions in my 30s?

But God help anyone outside the family who teases or threatens our siblings in anyway. I’m the baby of the family with two older brothers. This means that in the span of one day I could have my brother sit down on me and fart and then he would get off the school bus before me so he could go toe to toe with a bully who’d been making noise about pushing me around.

That’s what siblings do.

In Sadie by Courtney Summers, there’s nothing Sadie won’t do for her little sister Mattie and that includes seeking revenge on the man who killed her.

Radio personality West McCray, who airs a wildly popular crime podcast, gets a telephone call from a stranger begging him to help find 19 year old runaway Sadie Hunter. West contends there are girls who runaway all the time. There’s no mystery there. Until the stranger tells him Sadie has runaway to seek revenge on the man who killed her 13 year old sister Mattie. West’s boss is convinced there is a story there and sends West off on the hunt to find the truth.

A year before, 13 year old Mattie’s body was found savagely mutilated next to an abandoned schoolhouse being eaten by fire. Someone had tried to destroy his handy work by setting the school ablaze; no doubt hoping it would incinerate any evidence on Mattie’s body along with the school.

Sadie has been like a zombie for the last year, going through the motions of living. Their mother is an addict who disappeared a few years ago and Sadie has brought up her little sister almost single-handedly with the help of a surrogate grandmother/neighbor May Beth. She’s the woman who called West McCray and said, “I can’t take another dead girl.”

When Sadie’s mother was around, flying high on pills or nearly comatose with alcohol, there would usually be a man around the house, one she picked up at a bar.  Some were harmless. Others tipped the creepy scales. But one man in particular was evil incarnate. Sadie didn’t realize just how predatory the man was or how far his monstrous ways reached until she began to hunt him.

Told in alternating transcripts of McCray’s podcast and Sadie’s own story of tracking the killer down, Sadie is not your average revenge tale. It’s not even about right and wrong or being alone in the world and having absolutely nothing to keep you here. It’s about the love between siblings and a life on hold until the job of revenge can be completed.

They say revenge is a dish best served cold. But what they (whoever they are) don’t know is that revenge is a white-hot agonizing fire coursing through you, a fire that can only be doused and even then it smolders and lingers like a tire fire. Sadie will feed your need for close siblings, vengeance, and the downfall of the evil that men do.