Fame Adjacent

Something weird happened to me when I was a kid. I was on a TV show, and afterward, everyone on it became famous except for me.

This is how Fame Adjacent by Sarah Skilton begins. What appears to be a monologue in front of a live studio audience slowly reveals itself to actually be Holly Danner’s introduction in group therapy. Like many former child actors, as an adult Holly has found herself in rehab. She’s an addict, but it’s not what you think. Holly isn’t addicted to painkillers, alcohol, or gambling.

Holly is an internet addict.

That’s right. Internet addiction is an acknowledged and treatable problem in this book. Patients’ phones, tablets, laptops, and smart watches are locked up upon arrival. There’s no television, because television is likely to remind patients what they’re missing during their internet withdrawal. Patients are encouraged to participate in group therapy, play board games, and generally relearn how to unplug, connect with other people, and most of all get a good night’s sleep. There are no devices, and no online connections.

Withdrawal symptoms can be difficult to conquer. There’s the paranoia that the whole world is going ahead without your knowledge or permission. Swiping on unswipable things, like the view out a window, are common causes of crying breakdowns. Restless hands don’t know what to do with themselves, so talismans like stones are offered as a way to keep busy hands occupied.

And patients’ focused addictions are varied. One patient is addicted to popping videos–that would be YouTube videos of pimples being popped, cysts being lanced, etc. Another patient is obsessed with comparing her life to other moms’ seemingly perfect lives on Instagram, to the point of extreme depression and withdrawing from her real-life family. These addictions all got so huge they ruined the patients’ lives and make them take refuge in rehab.

Holly isn’t just addicted to surfing the internet, or using a specific app. She has recently become obsessed with her former castmates’ lives and telling the world that she was a part of their success, even if no one has ever heard of her. Best known for her role in the early 90s kids’ show Diego and the Lion’s Den, Holly was never able to replicate that success. She eventually faded into insignificance while everyone else went on to be super-huge mega stars.

What sent her into this tailspin was the announcement of a 25th anniversary reunion show with the entire cast. Everyone, that is, except for Holly. You see, Holly wasn’t invited–and something inside of her snapped. No one ever uses the phrase “psychotic break” but I read between the lines. After she lost her job, Holly’s family staged an intervention, which is what gave her the wake-up call she needed to seek professional help. But the timing is perfect. She figures she can go to rehab for the recommended six weeks, “get cured,” and still make it back to San Diego in time to crash the reunion show to set the record straight and give her former best friends a very large piece of her mind. On national television. Why not?

Then she starts making a connection with a fellow patient, Thom. He’s the whole reason she staged her introduction as a nightclub act. He tells every new patient in group therapy, “Pretend it’s your nightclub act,” but she’s the first person who actually took him up on it. He won’t tell Holly what his specific internet addiction is, but she realizes it truly won’t make her think less of him if she finds out what it is. That’s because she’s starting to realize she cares about him as more than just a fellow patient.

Thom completes his rehab and is released at the same time Holly discovers that the date for the reunion show got changed. Now she’s got less than three days to get from Ohio to NYC with no car, no credit cards, and no prospects. Except for Thom, who refuses to take her–or does he?

What starts out as a fascinating look into the world of internet addiction, mega-celebrity, and friendships gone wrong takes a drive into romance and that great American favorite–road fiction! Yes readers, we have ourselves a book that’s one part rehab, one part road trip, and 100% hilarious, heartwarming, and introspective.

Choices will be made. Hearts will be broken. But one thing is uncertain: will Holly get to the show on time? And if she does, what is she actually going to tell her former BFFs and the millions of people watching live at home?

I sadly identified with Holly a bit. Like Holly, I went through a period after high school where I broke it off with some friends who I felt only used my friendship when it was convenient for them. Holly and I are also the exact same age, so all of her cultural touchstones really hit home with me. And then there’s her voice. The snarky comedian who tends to put others before her. Sound familiar? I became emotionally invested in seeing Holly through to the very last page.

If you want to find out how Holly handles being on the sidelines of stardom, you’ll want to place a hold now so you can read Fame Adjacent when it comes out on April 9th.

Until then, I’m going to try to cut back on my internet time and increase my face-to-face time with the people I love. After all, no amount of Reddit AMAs or YouTube videos can ever come close to in-person conversation and making memories.

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.

Enter the Grishaverse

I usually try to approach book-to-screen adaptations with a fair bit of skepticism. Sure, they sometimes work out, but I’m a levelheaded guy who controls his impulses and manages his expectations with Jedi-like discipline. Just kidding! I never learn my lesson. Every time I hear about a new adaptation, my hope spirals out of control. Why keep your cool and be pleasantly surprised when you can build unrealistic expectations and experience utter devastation?

This might explain why I’m ecstatic that Rick Famuyiwa will direct Children of Blood and Bone. And why I refuse to worry that Brian K. Vaughan’s Y, the Last Man (already shortened by FX to Y, which definitely isn’t a bad sign, right?) will use CGI for Ampersand the monkey. And when Netflix announced an adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse, I really lost it. I can’t remember the last time I was this excited for a TV show.

So, what exactly is the Grishaverse? Leigh Bardugo has written seven books in this world so far, with at least one more in the pipeline and rumors of several more to follow. This world is first introduced in Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy: Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising. These books are set in Ravka, a land both on the brink of civil war, and facing encroaching threats from powerful nations at its borders. Complicating matters further, Ravka’s military is divided into two groups. The first of these is a pretty straightforward army. But Ravka’s Second Army is composed of magic wielders known as Grisha and led by the Darkling, a mysterious, ambitious, and charismatic young man who also happens to be the world’s most powerful Grisha. Like many misunderstood groups, the Grisha have long suffered abuse in Ravka and other nations and the Darkling seems bent on not just defeating foreign enemies, but also securing permanent power for himself and Grisha dominance throughout society.

This trilogy focuses on a young orphan named Alina. When her powers as a Grisha manifest, it becomes clear that she has a unique and legendary gift. She quickly finds herself in an elevated position, both courted and mentored by the Darkling. Alina quickly learns that she will need to navigate many dangers: jealous rivals, court intrigue, foreign assassins, and the Darkling’s morally ambiguous schemes, while learning to develop her power and determining which decisions she makes might save her country and which might lead to its ruin.

While I love Alina’s story, it isn’t necessarily where I recommend readers begin. My first foray into Bardugo’s thrilling work was the duology composed of Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom. These stories take place after the events of the Grisha trilogy, and follow a ruthless, scrappy, and irresistible group of criminals when they take a job breaking into an impenetrable fortress and rescuing a scientist who possesses incredibly powerful and dangerous knowledge. I don’t want to say a lot more about these books – they’re filled with twists, betrayals, and cliffhangers that I don’t want to risk ruining. I will say, however, that the characters in these books are immensely likable, their relationships are complicated in ways that are both satisfying and maddening, and that Bardugo’s work in this series is as strong as any fantasy writing that I’ve read. The best description I’ve seen for these books is Game of Thrones meets a heist movie. If that doesn’t have you chomping at the bit, check your pulse.

King of Scars, Bardugo’s latest work, is the first book in a new duology. Virtually any details about this novel would spoil the earlier books. Suffice it to say, this new release follows a cursed king as he deals with dangerous new threats, a returning menace, and two very, very badass Grisha. For fans of deep dives, there is also The Language of Thorns. This collection of short stories brings to life the myths and fairy tales of the Grishaverse. This is a worthy read, and ties in nicely with the traditions that crop up throughout all these books.

It’s been a pleasure to read (and re-read) these books and watch as Bardugo’s sharp and witty writing has matured. Over the course of these seven books, she has built a world filled with magic, intrigue, and adventure. I eagerly await more Grishaverse novels, and will be following every update on the miniseries with bated breath. Don’t screw this up, Netflix.

Spot-Lit for March 2019

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2019 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction  | 2019 Debuts

Heartwood 9:1 – The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter by Matei Calinescu

Zacharias Lichter is an ugly man with a deformed face, in tattered beggar’s clothes, who is said to be one of the city’s most familiar, bizarre, and picturesque figures. He has haunted the streets and parks for years, and people (who mostly try to avoid him) tend to see him as a madman. We come to learn that he was touched by a divine flame in his youth which caused him to shake off his merchant-family upbringing to study philosophy, but then to withdraw from opportunities in academia despite his well-regarded dissertation on the Enneads of Plotinus. He is known to let loose a torrent of words on his vision of an ideal society that would do away with ownership and in which more people would be beggars, as begging “is the profession that brings one closest to God.”

Lichter shares with us his experiences and opinions packed into very brief chapters with headings such as “On Courage,” “On Women,” “On Comfort,” “The Metaphysics of Laughter,” and “The Significance of the Mask.” He believes strongly in the spoken word but is also a poet who scribbles down his poems only to throw them away (though his biographer has preserved some of these and they are sprinkled throughout the book.) He is critical of an acquisitive society, and of the lying he finds everywhere. He is obsessed by the absurdity of a God who would torment Job, and he seeks wisdom in silence. The focus is solidly on Lichter and his ideas but among other characters are his barfly friend Poldy (who is presented as a great philosopher, though he says next to nothing); a chameleonic apprentice, Anselmus, who wishes to develop a “pedagogy of beguilement;” and the feared and detested Dr. S. who wishes to psychoanalyze Lichter.

I suspect you may find Matei Calinescu’s The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter to be unlike anything you’ve previously read. It was originally published in Romania in 1969 and has only recently been translated into English (by the author’s wife, Adriana Calinescu, and Breon Mitchell). Despite frequent mentions of the torrential outpouring of his prophecies, Lichter’s sprightly ideas are presented in a concise and careful fashion which makes you slow down as you try to follow their unconventional logic, all the while wondering how seriously you are intended to take them. But there’s a method to his madness, and key concerns are revisited in different ways throughout the book; some of these touchstones include the nature of being, voluntary poverty, poetry, vitalism, orality, the ineffable, and the via negativa. Be prepared to embrace iconoclasm and what Lichter calls perplexity – and to be suffused with a strangely vibrating joy.

Get Shorty, Now!

It’s 9th grade English and we are reading To Kill A Mockingbird. I enjoy the book tremendously and soon the crafty Ms. Franklin tells us that we’re going to watch the Oscar-winning movie of the same name. I like watching movies in class as much as the next guy so I eagerly await this golden opportunity. And… I am sorely disappointed. The book is so very much better. To an older and wiser person this is no surprise, but to an impressionable teen… well, it was a surprise. And so I became interested in the relationship between books and movies based on books.

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard is unusual in that the 1990 book spawned a 1995 movie and a 2017 TV series. Let us look at these gems in the same order in which I discovered them.

Movie

The movie version of Get Shorty is one of my all-time favorites. Featuring a cast of John Travolta, Gene Hackman (who at that time was in every movie made), Rene Russo and Danny DeVito, as well as a funky soundtrack by John Lurie, this fast-paced glance into the world of organized crime and Hollywood phonies is simply brilliant. Travolta plays a Florida thug with mob connections who, while on a job in L.A., decides to become a movie producer. The rest of the plot is too complex to explain with any clarity, but there are twists and turns galore, surprises and shocks, scream queens and egg-white omelets.

Book

Some years later I decided to read the book to see how the movie compared to it. 9th grade English all over again! But this time both book and movie were excellent. Never having read Leonard before, I wasn’t sure if I would like his prose, but his words were like butter to my soul. There seems to be this school of writers who focus on kooky capers in Florida (Carl Hiaasen, Dave Barry, Tim Dorsey), and Leonard is, if not their king, at least their vice-chancellor. And having seen the movie first, there was the added bonus of hearing the soundtrack in my head while reading.

TV

When the television version of Get Shorty arrived I was highly suspicious. Although the cast of Chris O’Dowd and Ray Romano is solid, it seemed that a “remake” of the movie could do nothing but fall short of the mark. The first episode did nothing to dispel my suspicion. See, the movie has such a specific feel created by the soundtrack, pacing, editing and acting. To my mind, the story and this feel are one and the same. The TV version could have chosen to imitate the movie’s feel, but it does not. And as much as I love Chris O’Dowd, I was disappointed.

Eventually I moved on to episode 2 and I felt that there might be hope. Trudging on, I began to respect and enjoy the show, its soundtrack and pacing, its somewhat different telling of the story. And by the time I finished season one I was loving it.

So here we have a rarity, a book that became a movie that became a television series, and all three versions are fabulous yet distinctive. I recommend checking out each version of this story, in whatever order you like. Just jump in your Cadillac minivan and drive on down to the library. Tell ‘em Chili Palmer sent you.

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.