Revenge Rhapsody

revenge

I have a brother who is two and a half years older than me. When I was in school, he was always 2 grades ahead of me. The older I get, the waters of my childhood get a little murky and I don’t recall things the way they exactly happened-just that they happened. But one thing sticks firm: the bus ride home from Lowell Elementary school, a bully named Sheldon, and my seemingly fearless brother.

Sheldon was a typical bully because he picked on smaller kids-boys and girls. The rumor was he used the tears of his victims to mix with his after school glass of Kool-Aid. Every day after school on the bus Sheldon would start threatening me, promising that when I got off the bus he would beat me up. I think Sheldon may have been dumber than a bucket of hair because he never seemed to realize that my brother made sure he got off the bus first and he would stand, arms crossed over his chest as I hopped off the bus with Sheldon on my heels. Short story long, my brother always had my back. He was my protector. Then again, a few hours after making sure the bully didn’t get me, he’d sit on me and fart until I cried but since I was his little sister, he was allowed to torture me.

premeditatedIn Josin McQuein’s Premeditated, Dinah is as close to her cousin Claire as any sister would be. They grew up together and made plans for the future that involved being around each other. Then Dinah’s family moves away, leaving behind not only her cousin but her two best friends as well. Dinah’s mother is a real bi-….nag. She harangues Dinah and her father, criticizes, yells, and tears them down any chance she gets. In fact, I thought the lady was bonkers and at some point in the book was going to be fitted with a jacket that makes her hug herself and get three rounds of meds a day. Dinah has no real relationship with her mother and can’t figure out why her father puts up with her mother’s behavior, let alone stay married to the woman.

And then the family gets a phone call that Dinah’s cousin Claire has slit her wrists.  The act in itself wasn’t enough to kill her, but Claire somehow lost her balance and cracked her head against the sink or the bathtub. She’s now in a coma and there seems to be little hope she’ll come out of it. Dinah’s on the first plane back to her home town to be with her cousin and her aunt and uncle. Dinah searches her cousin’s room for any clues and finds her diary. In her diary Claire wrote that she met someone over the summer, fell in love, gave herself to, and then was dumped the next day. The boy who did this goes to the prestigious Lowery Private School where Claire would have entered as a freshman had she not tried to kill herself.

Armed with the name of the boy who treated Dinah’s cousin like a piece of garbage, Dinah dyes her black hair blonde, takes out all of her piercings, dons a plaid skirt and knee socks and enters the elite private school bent on exacting revenge on Brooks Walden. With the help of her two best friends, Brucey and Tabs, Dinah attempts to bring the rich kid down with a revenge plan that could ruin his present and future life. But Dinah finds herself grudgingly liking Brooks. And she likes his best friend Dex, who she can see herself spending more time with. Can she avenge her cousin even though she’s confused about who the bad guy really is?  How far does Dinah have to go to set things right? Is Brooks the monster she believes him to be? Will Claire come out of her coma and if she does how damaged will she be? Will I ever remember to refill the ice-cube tray?  Just seeing if you’re paying attention.

Take everything you know about revenge, put it in the kitchen sink, and throw a match on it. Because you haven’t seen revenge until you read Premeditated.

They Sure Look Like Ants From Up Here

I have always wondered what it would be like to be so far down the rabbit hole of love that you don’t need to doubt it. I’ll admit it; I’ve never been in love. Not proper love, not the kind where you fall asleep at night assured that love is going to be there in the morning. I’ve also wondered what it would be like to be abducted by aliens and told I’m the deciding factor for whether the world ends or not.

wearetheantsThis is what happens to Henry Denton in Shaun David Hutchinson’s We Are the Ants.

Henry lives with his mother, his brother Charlie and his Alzheimer’s stricken grandma in Florida. He and Charlie’s father split years ago and they haven’t heard or seen him since. Charlie’s kind of an asshole, but not in the regular way older brothers are assholes to their siblings. His treatment of Henry verges on physical abuse. Charlie’s flunked out of college and gotten his girlfriend Zooey pregnant. Zooey is pretty cool and an amazing influence on Charlie. Think “You make me want to be a better man.”  Their mother is an exhausted waitress who chain-smokes while trying to keep her world together. Grandma is slowly losing the thread of the story.

And Henry keeps getting abducted by aliens. It’s been happening for years, ever since he was little but nobody believes him. He calls the aliens sluggers because they look like, well….slugs. They aren’t big on communication and ‘talk’ to Henry by gesturing at pictures.  Fortunately, they’re not big on anal probing. They usually drop him off miles from home either naked or in his underwear. Aliens either have a wicked sense of humor or the idea of pants is ridiculous to them.

They do, however, want him to make the biggest decision of not only his life but the entire planet’s life: push a giant red button and the world continues, don’t push it and life ends. They give him 144 days to make the decision. The world as we know it will end on January 29, 2016 at 20:03 GMT. Most people would automatically say “I’m pushing the button because I want humanity to continue to thrive. There’s so much living to do. There might be a cure for cancer or stupidity out there. I can’t end the world.” I fall somewhere in the middle: “Meh, I might not push the button and let this ridiculous world keep going or I might push it and let’s all get on with the afterlife.” Then again, I can’t make a decision to save my life. Don’t ask me what time I want to go to lunch because I’ll freeze and blurt out “1964!”

But Henry seems to have a very good reason to want the world to end. His boyfriend, Jesse, killed himself last year and left no note, no reason explaining why he did it. What hurts almost as much is that Henry also lost his best friend Audrey who completed their trio. He won’t speak to her even though she tries to become his friend again. She has her own demons to deal with and a secret she’s not about to admit to anyone.

Henry is unpopular at school, his nickname being Space Boy because everyone thinks he’s nuts for saying he’s constantly getting abducted by aliens. Uber popular Marcus is a jock and a bully and secretly in the closet. When others are around, he mercilessly picks on Henry but when they’re alone he acts like he wants to be with him. And why does Henry allow it? Because in a weird way, he thinks he needs to be punished. His boyfriend killed himself and he thinks maybe it was his fault. How many of us have done THE stupidest things because we thought we didn’t deserve any better? Did you see how fast my hand went up? I think I broke the sound barrier.

Henry’s life is a mess and now, Diego Vega moves to town and Henry starts to wonder, does he deserve to love and be loved again? What’s Diego’s story? What happened in Colorado that forced him to move to Florida? Is Diego even gay? Why does Henry have all these feelings? Is he being disloyal to the memory of Jesse?

As if being a teenager wasn’t hard enough, Henry is constantly getting abducted by impatient aliens who want him to decide if the world should continue or if it should end. When I was 16 my hardest decision was Cocoa Puffs or Lucky Charms for breakfast. Okay. That actually is still my hardest decision some days and I’m now almost 40. Oh man. Now I want some Lucky Charms. Where was I? Oh yeah. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Do I have to pay REM for using those lyrics? Only if I earn money with this blog post?  Oh, okay. Don’t worry. That’s not going to happen.

So what should Henry do? Push the button because he believes in love and life and the future? Or ignore the button because humanity is doomed to misery and he’s doing everyone a favor by letting the world end? The decision rests heavily on a teenaged Space Boy.

Guard Your Heart

impossibleknifeofmemorySometimes I read a book and think how I want to write about it on the library’s blog. Yes, I actually do think about what I’m writing. Kinda. It usually goes like this: “Book good. Book make Jennifer happy. Book make reality disappear. Jennifer tell about book.” Evidently, I’m a Neanderthal in my head.

So I’m going to tell you about it.

In Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, Hayley Kincain has one more year of high school to get through and then….what? Go to college? Not when her father, a vet from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, is suffering from PTSD so fierce that she sometimes wonders if their lives are going to end up like a news story: murder/suicide. For the last five years it’s been Hayley and her father Andy on the road. Andy was a long haul trucker who homeschooled his daughter on the road. In subjects such as history and warfare she’s way ahead of her classmates. Not so much in math (Don’t worry Haley. I’m almost 40 and I haven’t used algebra once in my life since high school. I figure X should get its sh*t together and try to find Y itself). After being on the road so long, Andy decides to move Hayley into his childhood home. This is where he does drugs and drinks and suffers from severe bouts of PTSD that leave the house in ruins and the dog hiding in another room.

Now a senior in high school Hayley has to navigate friendships, who she can trust and who she won’t let past her barriers. Even her best friend Gracie doesn’t know what goes on in Hayley’s home, that she often has to clean up the puddles of puke from her father after a bender or that a friend of his who likes to hang out at the house gives her the creeps so she disappears until she’s sure he’s gone.

In walks Finn. He’s this goofy dude that Hayley hasn’t given much thought to since starting school but he’s always joking with her, inviting her places. He’s into her but she’s thinking “Nah, my dad has severe issues. He left the war but the war never left him. Why would I even think about trying to have a normal life, a normal relationship?” But you can’t help who you fall in like with. Not love. Like. That’s very important to Hayley. Most of her grades are pretty good but Hayley is combative, often correcting her teachers and she gets sent to the intrusive guidance counselor who threatens to contact Hayley’s father but Hayley can’t have this.

Andy’s erratic behavior is escalating and he refuses to go to the VA hospital for treatments, blows off his appointments, loses job after job or just doesn’t show up for work. All the other seniors are applying to colleges and awaiting acceptance letters. Part of Hayley wants to apply to a college but the thought of leaving her father on his own keeps her from imagining a real future. She sees her life spreading out before her, the years stretching on with her still living at home and taking care of her broken father. Trish, a woman who helped raise Hayley and put in her own time with Andy’s demons, tries to make a return to their lives. She had been like a mother to Hayley (whose own mother died when she was a baby) but Trish up and left one horrible night years before, something that Hayley can’t forgive. Trish had a drinking problem as well. Her fights with Andy often became physical. Hayley will do anything to keep her out of their lives.

Between keeping her father sane, keeping herself in school, and dealing with the possibility of no future, Hayley’s will to keep going is staggering. I don’t know how she does it, how she puts herself in ‘move forward’ mode. I know myself. I know I would be “Okay. Thanks. I’m done. Where’s the nearest roof I can jump off?” Laurie Halse Anderson creates characters so real you expect to bump into them at the grocery store.

Love, war, ghosts, survival. There’s even a little redemption thrown in there. The Impossible Knife of Memory has everything that a person wanting to get lost in a book is looking for. Book good. Book make happy.

Dark Dreams Bought and Sold

bazaarofbaddreamsI’m not overly fond of short stories any more (which is weird because all I ever do is write short stories that usually end up as long as a three-hour Uncle Morty War Story in which Morty gets his World Wars mixed up and tells you he shot the Archduke Ferdinand) but when Stephen King comes out with a new book of short stories, I eat them up. His newest collection is titled The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.

Throughout most of his writing life, King has set his novels and stories in Maine. Over the last few years he’s begun setting them in places like Florida. Reading them kind of feels like mom and dad sold your childhood home and moved away while you were at college. The stories are still good but they don’t feel like…home.

Many dismiss King as a horror hack churning out stories about monsters under the bed or clowns terrorizing children but they have it all wrong. Sure, in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams he writes about monsters like in the story “Mile 81” where a car (with hints of his novel Christine thrown in) eats people at a rest stop. King also writes about weird happenings like in the story “UR” where a man decides to bite the bullet and buy a Kindle. This was when Kindles first came out and there were a couple features on them that were ‘experimental.’ He finds out just what that means when he orders nonfiction books about historical events that never happened-in this version of the universe.

But King also writes about everyday life as shown in these stories from his latest collection:

“Batman and Robin Have an Altercation”: after a man lunches with his Alzheimer’s-stricken father, they get into a road rage incident that has unforeseen consequences.

“Morality”: What does a financially strapped married couple do to get out from under the weight of debt and job loss? The unthinkable becomes possible.

“Herman Wouk Is Still Alive”: A couple of octogenarian poets rekindle an old love during a picnic while a van full of kids and two down on their luck women barrel down a freeway.

“Premium Harmony”: The love is gone from this married couple and the wife’s damn dog is still in the back seat.

kingDo you want some straight up old school King terror? Try these shorties in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams:

“Bad Little Kid”: Dennis the Menace has nothing on this supernatural punk, but can anybody else see him?

“Afterlife”: A man is dying from cancer. Is it the end or just another beginning?

“The Little Green God of Agony”: In 1999 Stephen King was run over by a van while out for his daily walk. He should have died. Instead, this story (along with many novels and stories) came out about a man who claims he can take physical pain from people and make it his own.

I sat up way late into the night reading this book. See, that’s the beauty of a Stephen King short story: you read the first few pages and think ‘Where the hell is he going to go with this?’ The answer is ‘I don’t know, man.  I just don’t know.’ He’s a wildcard. Wildcard!

I Already Forgot to Remember

thegreatforgettingThis is how James Renner’s The Great Forgetting opens: a Scoutmaster finds an ape-like arm, with a watch still attached to the wrist, at the memorial site of the crash of Flight 93, a plane hijacked on 9/11 but diverted from its intended course when the passengers overtook the terrorists onboard and crashed the plane into a Pennsylvania field. The Scoutmaster takes it to the coroner who was at the crash site all those years ago.

The coroner studies the arm and tells the man someone must be playing a prank on him. If it was an arm from the crash (and he very much doubts it is) it’d be nothing but bone. Many remains from that crash were vaporized on impact. The watch is engraved with a name that sounds familiar to the coroner. He checks the names of those aboard Flight 93 and the name on the watch matches the name of a man who died when the plane crashed.

But why does it look so ape-like?

Jack Felter, a history teacher, is headed home for the summer to help his sister take care of their ailing father, a former pilot in the Vietnam War who has a violent form of dementia. Jack’s childhood best friend Tony has been missing for two years. A psychologist working at a mental hospital, Tony was accused of funneling money from the hospital and disappeared. Tony’s wife, Sam, was Jack’s first love. She believes that Tony committed suicide and is now at the bottom of a quarry and wants Jack’s help finding the body. This is where the plot really takes a turn for the bizarre.

It seems Tony was acting strange even before he left, becoming more and more paranoid, boiling all of his drinking water and delving into conspiracy theories. He’d been an intense kid, but Jack hasn’t seen him in years. Jack reluctantly agrees to help Sam out, figuring he’ll ask around and get her questions answered, then return to his life in another town.

Jack heads to the mental hospital where he meets 16-year-old Cole who was Tony’s patient. Tony told Cole that one day his friend Jack would come for a visit. Cole begins telling him a story: There’s a group of people who have come up with a program called The Great Forgetting. They want us to forget important things like world events. They keep resetting time. They put fluoride in the water to make us forget. Start boiling your water.

“What day do you think it is?” Cole asks Jack.

Jack looks at him with that condescending indulgent smile sane people give to those they deem bat poop crazy and answers “It’s Tuesday, June16th.”

Cole says “It’s Wednesday, the 17th”. Boil your water, he tells Jack.  Begin to remember.

Cole is the only one who knows where Tony has disappeared to and thinks that finding him might save the world. Unfortunately, some very nasty things are not only after Jack and Cole but want to hunt down Tony as well. Jack and a motley group head for a secret bunker under the Catskills which leads them to a forgotten island in the Pacific and eventually the truth about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that disappeared without a trace a year ago.

The Great Forgetting is a fantastic book about time travel, enduring love, and setting things right. If you crave paranoid conspiracy theories with a little sci-fi thrown in, this book is the one!

I gotta boogie on out of here. I have 8 gallons of water to boil. I want to remember.

Check Under the Bed….And in the Closet. Just Check the Whole House.

Don’t you roll your eyes at me because this trio of books I’m going to talk about seemingly belongs in the area of ‘To Be Read By Children.’ By the age of 13 I was already reading Stephen King and Clive Barker. Not because I was precocious but because my brother left Stephen King’s Pet Sematary on the arm of the couch one day and it had a kitty on it and anything with a kitty on it had to be pretty good. If you know anything about that book (or about any Stephen King book in general) you know I was traumatized for months. But in a good way. Yes, there is good trauma. I think.

So when I first laid eyes on Alvin Schwartz’s first book for kids called Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark I thought ‘Oh, please! That’s supposed to scare me? Bring it.’

Scary_Stories_to_Tell_in_the_Dark_coverOh, it brought the scares. It brought them in droves. I bought the book because the picture on the cover made me uneasy, a man with his arms flung to the skies, his mouth stretched open in agony. Okay, cool picture. And then I began to read the stories inside. Hooked is not a strong enough word to describe what that first book did to me. I would read a story and then rush to read it to my mom. Schwartz relies on folklore and urban myth in many of the stories and he gives a background description of each story at the end of the book.

But it’s the stories wedded to Stephen Gammell’s illustrations that made the books for me when they first came out. These are horrifying pictures. I came across my copies of the books (one of them so often read that I repaired the spine with black electrician’s tape) about a year ago and I flipped through it, shuddering at the illustrations. Other illustrators were brought in for the newer editions of these books which the library owns, but Gammell’s illustrations are the ones that haunt me.

Part of me wants to warn parents that the books are a little too scary for small children to read. But another part of me thinks what the hell; read them to your little boogers and keep them in line. Tell them all about that thing waiting under the bed counting down the minutes until the lights are turned off.

scarymontage

Book One is Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Even the titles of the stories are terrifying: “What Do You Come For,” “The Hearse Song,” “Old Woman All Skin and Bone.” My favorite out of this first book is a very short story called “The Slithery-Dee”: The Slithery-Dee. He lives in the sea. He saw all the others. But he didn’t see me. That quote creeps me out for reasons I still don’t understand.

Book Two, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, amps up the frights even more with story titles like “Wonderful Sausage,” “Cat in a Shopping Bag,” “The Man in the Middle” and my favorite from this book,”The Bed By the Window.”

The third book is Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones (Oh God, I just read a few of the story titles and had major flashbacks. I think I should sleep with the lights on tonight.) Titles in this volume include: “Just Delicious,” “The Dead Hand,” “The Red Spot” (I’m still afraid of this story actually being true and happening to me) and “It’s Him.”

These are just a smattering of titles from each book. You can read them in any order but study the illustrations closely. They, along with the stories themselves, will help your nightmares find you.

You Dirty Panda

lolitoOh God. This book was so disgustingly filthy I feel like I should go out and buy a copy for everyone I know who has a sick sense of humor like a 15-year-old boy. That means I would buy five copies for myself because I don’t know anyone else who is as immature as a 15-year-old boy. Except for me.

In Lolito by Ben Brooks, 15-year-old Etgar Allison is home alone during a school vacation. His girlfriend is away on some sun drenched island with her father. Etgar inadvertently finds out she cheated on him back at home, kissing some guy at a party. He spends most of his vacation raiding his father’s liquor cabinet and drinking his whiskey and watching porn because he’s a fifteen year old boy left home alone with his dog and his worsening depression over his girlfriend’s infidelity.

Etgar gets massively bored and decides to go online into an adult chatroom and meets Macy, a ’35’ year old woman in Scotland. And thus begins their raunchy cybersex….uh…. relationship. She doesn’t know he’s a fifteen year old boy sitting at home during a school vacation, letting the dog poop in the house because he’s too depressed to let him out. Etgar is so depressed he starts wearing a panda suit. Don’t ask. His friends try to get him out of the house-usually to a party to get him drunk. Seriously, what is it with British kids drinking all the time? Why not a nice quiet night at home getting tipsy and reading a book but not using the oven because you should never use the oven when you’ve been drinking at home alone. So I’ve been told.

’35’ year old Macy decides that she and Etgar should meet up. Meet up is a fancy term for get it on bang a gong. Etgar panics but only a little since he’s a 15-year-old boy and the promise of sex with a beautiful older woman would be enough to get him to eat lava. Etgar has a little inheritance from his grandmother. He uses it to book a hotel room in London. When I was 15 I was still riding my bike all over the place and watching cartoons. To be fair, I’m now 38, my bicycle is rusting in the garage and I still watch cartoons. I’m a real wild card. Watch out.

What happens next with Etgar and Macy….dear God. You will just have to read the book to find out. Graphic, lewd, crude and hilarious, Lolito had me giggling to myself like the immature 15-year-old boy I am. On the inside.