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Land, Literature, and Life: All I Want to Do is Live by Trace Ramsey

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all i want to do is live by trace ramsey

Most of the books I read can be put into two categories: young adult or Stephen King. Every once in a while, though, I’ll branch out, for one reason or another. In this instance, All I Want to Do is Live was a publishing project I chose to back on Hatchfund, a Kickstarter-like project funding site—and of course I went for the bound book copy reward.

All I Want to Do is Live is a collection of essays, creative nonfiction, and poetry. It’s made up considerably of selected pieces from author Trace Ramsey’s zines, some of which appear both in their original zine or chapbook form and in adapted/expanded versions later on in the book.

Part one consists of selected pieces from Ramsey’s nonfiction chapbooks and zines, and Ramsey’s storytelling within these essays is striking. He crafts vivid scenes of rural life in beautiful, horrifying ways, which aren’t likely to be easily forgotten. One notable event is his effort to butcher a roadkill deer he found, the attempt quickly going awry. Among the rich description of solo survival, though, Ramsey makes reference to why he’s doing this—his internal motivations—and he does so without making the piece feel disjointed or awkward. Many pieces in the collection have this back and forth between the internal and external; I couldn’t help noting as I read that Ramsey’s smooth style would make an excellent example for anyone looking to study creative nonfiction.

Among part two, the poetry selections, there are a number of amazing, thoughtful pieces, from the likes of “Baby #1” and “Baby #2” to “Homeless” and “Roaches.” A personal favorite within the section is “Planning,” which examines assumptions surrounding the potential of tragedy and the aftermath. It’s a short piece, but powerful in its brevity. As with much poetry, each piece in the section benefits from a reread and even a read aloud. The language twists in a way that at first can be puzzling—if beautiful—and isn’t that just the way of poetry?

A prominent, recurring theme throughout the collection is Ramsey’s interest in and affection for birds. Their presence seems to permeate nearly every piece, even in a simple passing mention of a bird’s song or their appearance flitting through a scene. I don’t put much credit into the idea that themes, motifs, and the like are always a result of author intention, but I do think that the birds, in general, speak to a variety of habits, ideas, and experiences: The prominence of the rural in Ramsey’s life, the comfort of the familiar in the midst of a struggle, and the constant underlying presence of his depression.

Part three of the collection, essays and flash nonfiction, contains one of the most impactful pieces: “Farthing Street.” This essay focuses on the birth of Ramsey’s second child and the ensuing post-partum depression he experiences, something not often talked about in terms of the father. It connects so many aspects of the collection together to discuss Ramsey’s depression, approaching it medically as necessary (and how that relates to an at times “crunchy” lifestyle, and birth process in particular), and examining how it affects and relates to his status as a new father. It’s a thorough, passionate piece, raw and quiet, yet still powerful, with its closing line the collection’s title in bold, “All I want to do is live.” It’s a piece that made me take a moment, take a deep breath, and hold the book to my chest as I braced myself in recovery.

All I Want to Do is Live is just beautiful, inside and out. From the texture of the tricolor cover to the vulnerability and honesty of the contents within. Trace Ramsey’s collection is a powerful work of art that I’m so proud to support.

July 7, 2017

The Nocturnal Reader’s Box | June 2017: All Hail the King

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The Nocturnal Reader's Box

Y’all, I could not resist this box, and there was a turn of luck that came in my ordering it. A couple of weeks ago, as I was crossing my fingers in the most recent Nocturnal Readers Box rep search on Instagram (spoiler alert: I was not chosen as a rep), there was the announcement that a few orders had been canceled for the June box and purchases would be temporarily reopened. So naturally I snagged that right up after missing out on the original ordering time frame for this Stephen King-themed book box.

For those who don’t know, The Nocturnal Reader’s Box is a monthly subscription box focusing on the horror, science-fiction, and psychological thriller genres. Each box comes with two books–one new release, one new copy of a previous release–a bookmark, a wearable, and an art print commissioned for that month’s theme, plus a handful other items.

This month’s box included: an exclusive edition of the new Stephen King novella Gwendy’s Button Box, co-authored with Richard Chizmar; a copy of Pork Pie Hat by Peter Straub; a bookmark; a The Dark Tower bandana; a “Constant Reader” enamel pin; a “Greetings from Derry, Maine” magnet; It and Carrie stickers; a The Long Walk art print; a Castle Rock/Gwendy’s Button Box limited edition coin; a Creepshow patch; and an exclusive Firestarter tea from Jasmine Pearl Tea Company.

This box was an absolute blast. All the items in it were wonderfully on topic, from the It and Carrie stickers (two of my favorites of his novels) to the Derry, Maine postcard magnet to the Dark Tower bandana. Everything is of excellent quality as well, which is always a pleasure. While I’ve never received a low-quality box from any company I’ve tried thus far, I have gotten some disappointing items before, but that wasn’t the case with this one. The items were such that they should appeal to a variety of King fans, and they’re all something that can find use.

I’m thinking specifically of the bandana, because I don’t generally wear them, so what I actually ended up doing with it was tying it onto my bat purse, which it goes great with aesthetically. I think just because it was something that might not have an obvious use right away for those who don’t usually venture into the land of bandanas doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth it. (And honestly, even if you can’t find a use for it, there’s so much else in the box that it’s not a loss.)

I think my only disappointments with the box were the second book and the tea. While I have high hopes for Pork Pie Hat, it’s something like an odd duck in the box since it’s not a Stephen King piece. As for the tea, that’s all about preference. While I’m a huge fan of spicy foods, I’m not a fan of ginger, which is a big flavor in this tea. The tea itself seems to be of great quality, though, with a strong scent and flavor. I simply don’t like ginger. (And I did at least make the effort to try it–it just wasn’t … my cup of tea.)

So was I happy with my first Nocturnal Reader’s Box? Oh, heck yes. So much so that I’ve kept my subscription going for the July box as well (themed “The Feast”), and I’m looking forward to seeing what shows up at my doorstep next month.

Disclaimer: I purchased this box with my own money and have received no compensation for this review. All opinions are one-hundred percent honest and my own.

June 16, 2017

It’s the End of the World As We Know It: The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

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The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

I don’t read (or know of) a lot of zombie books, and I don’t watch many zombie movies, either. The only time I watch The Walking Dead is when I’m in the room while Dan is watching it. I’m not opposed to the zombie subgenre; it’s just not my usual topic of choice. But when I picked up Rue Morgue a few issues ago to find the cover story was  a piece on a new zombie film–an adaptation of a novel–it piqued my curiosity. Maybe it was the title, The Girl with All the Gifts, or maybe it was the summary that followed, but along with that cover story, something got TGWATG stuck in my head like an inner ear itch you just can’t scratch.

Finally, a few weeks ago, I made my first trip in months to the library. I went armed with a list, and TGWATG sat at the very top.

M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts places readers twenty years into the future, where a fungal virus has spread and turned much of the earth’s population into “hungries,” seemingly mindless creatures that feed on their (uninfected) fellow humans. It’s been discovered that certain infected people–certain children–are partially immune, but the reason remains unknown. When the base at which this anomaly is being studied becomes overrun by a hoard of hungries and junkers (a feral population of humans choosing to live fully off the grid, without the aid or overview of the military), we’re left to follow five of the remaining characters on their way to the command center. Among them is the infected child, Melanie, who shows the greatest potential to save them all.

A sentient zombie in the form of an adolescent girl seemed too good to pass up, and I’m so glad I found TGWATG at the library because I didn’t much want to wait to read this.

The beginning was a bit slow, easing readers into the world of destruction, infection, and military life. I have to admit the first dozen chapters or so felt like a struggle, but a number of bookstagrammers assured me it was worth it, that the action would pick up, and they didn’t let me down.

Nothing terribly new or unexpected occurs in this novel as far as zombie stories go, aside from the explanation for the undead. The reanimated state of zombies has often been portrayed as resulting from a disease, but the disease as fungal isn’t one I remember seeing before now and not to the extent it has been in TGWATG. Carey is thorough in detailing what scientist Caroline Caldwell–a rather sterile, human evil in contrast to the hijacked hungries–knows and we, as a result, also come to learn. And while I find the fact that it’s a fungus and, by extension, how it works fascinating, the chapters from Caldwell’s perspective remained some of the least interesting throughout the book, as Caldwell’s ruminations are bogged down by science and lack of humanity that’s found in the other characters, including the hungry-hating Sergeant Parks. I wouldn’t say this makes the Caldwell chapters bad, however; in fact, their style reflects perfectly on her character.

By far my favorite chapters were from Melanie’s perspective. She has such a wonderful character whom I couldn’t help feeling affection for (though, honestly, I liked everyone but Caldwell). To see the world, even in its dystopian state, through the eyes of a young girl is actually quite sweet, given their circumstances. But Melanie’s characterization gives us so much insight into these partially immune hungries, and while I expect readers will catch onto the looming questions of “Who is human and what does that mean?” much quicker than the adults in the novel, it’s not a consideration without merit in this story.

My biggest beef with the story is actually the subplot of the junkers. They’re mentioned a handful of times, but aside from being a catalyst in the early stages of the novel, they don’t have much part to play. I don’t know if they were truly necessary to the story overall (and as it happens they’re largely absent from the film adaptation with no real loss to the story). While they present an ominous threat, it’s so abstract in comparison to the hungries that they’re forgettable.

Despite the slow start, I enjoyed this novel. It was a little predictable at times–apart from the ending, which I didn’t see coming and just adored in its darkness–but for the most part, it was a thoughtful, frustrating, and heartbreaking look at humanity and what it means to be alive.

June 9, 2017

Grieving and Guilt: Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner

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Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner

Last year, one of the only books I read in under twenty-four hours was Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King. I received it in the March OwlCrate and knew nothing about it before it arrived; I hadn’t even heard of it. Even when I read the summary, I wasn’t sure how I would like it. It just didn’t get me super stoked. I’m happy to say, though, that I fell in love with it and anything else that Zentner would write, even if he hasn’t come up with it yet. I was an instant fan.

And in March of this year, his new book, Goodbye Days, was being released and I was hyped. I was ready for it. It had been on my wishlist for months. And once again I wasn’t disappointed, although that didn’t surprise me this time around.

From the time I heard the summary, Goodbye Days had my attention as its subject is something that’s always been important to me. The book follows Carver Briggs after the simultaneous death of his three best friends in a texting-related car accident. Carver, racked with guilt at the possibility that it was his fault, embarks on a series of “goodbye days” both to remember and grieve for his friends while trying to come to terms with his own role in the incident.

This book gave me both the crying feels and the yelling feels. I’ll tell you now that, given everything we learn throughout the book, I don’t think it’s Carver’s fault. As someone who makes it a point to put my phone on silent and stash it in my bag, I have a lot of feelings about these kinds of cases. It’s not just about how everyone feels, though, either reading the novel or existing within it. Eventually, the law becomes involved in Carver’s life after the incident, and things get tense–but in an entertaining way that I wouldn’t trade.

The thing about Goodbye Days, for me, is that Carver’s struggles were so palpable. They were strong enough that when Carver was freaking out, then I was freaking out, even if not as much. Of course, like any writer worth their ilk, Zentner didn’t just tell us that Carver was distraught. There were a number of scenes in which Carver has a panic attack, and at first he doesn’t even know what’s happening to him. Even though I understood and was pretty sure that he wasn’t dying like he thought, the description of each incident was so vivid that I was still scared and heartbroken for him. I think a large portion of that can be attributed to Zentner’s empathetic way of writing, helping us to learn who his characters are and to feel for them through their struggles. He makes us root for them.

I loved reading this book, and I remain a fan of Jeff Zentner for another novel. He’s an author I’ll continue keeping an eye on with great anticipation for what’s to come.

May 12, 2017

Be My Friend: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, if you do not know, is a series about four girls–Tibby, Lena, Carmen, and Bridget–all born within days of each other and who as a result are something like built-in friends from the womb onward. The books specifically follow them through four summers, the first summer being their first time all apart, and just before they’re each set to leave on their own trips, they discover the magic of a thrift store pair of jeans that fits them all despite their various shapes and sizes. Obviously, these magic pants are the key to keeping them together even when they’re apart.

This is a book series I’ve been reading since about the time it started coming out in 2001, and despite my tbr plans for April, I ended up rereading them all once again–even the adult sequel, Sisterhood Everlasting. The books have always tapped into a lot of feelings for me, but this reading was different from the usual experiences throughout my teen years.

I’m a person who stays bitter and holds grudges. Maybe it’s the Aries in me or maybe it’s just a stunt in my emotional growth; either way, I’m getting too old to bother denying that anymore. So while, in the moment, many of my past friendships seemed good, they fell apart, and hindsight shows me that they weren’t what I thought at the time. I find it hard to forget that people have left me for other, better friends (or boyfriends) or that they were emotionally manipulative during our so-called friendship. Even though I should know better, even though I do have some good friends now, it still feels like it must have been my fault. It feels like there’s something wrong with me. It feels like I’m not good enough.

So when I read and reread The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, even now, ten years older than the girls were that first summer–and only a few years younger than they are in Sisterhood Everlasting–I find myself wavering between living vicariously through the story of their friendship and being envious of it. As a teenager, it was their fraught relationships with boys that made my heart ache, but now it’s their strong relationships with each other.

The bonds between the girls are so strong throughout the series as to seem almost impossible, but I can’t help believing in them despite my own experiences. I’m reaching a point when I start to think I’ll never have a best friend quite like them–which isn’t to say I don’t love the friends I do have. It’s just that, if I’m honest with all of us, they certainly don’t look like the friendship in the books and they don’t feel strong in the same way. Maybe I’m expecting too much from us, though. Maybe the books are an impossible standard. Maybe I’ll never really know.

The series is contemporary YA, which isn’t necessarily en vogue right now unless a horrific illness is involved, but far be it from me to criticize a series lauding female friendships and showing them in such an authentic, positive light just because it’s not the “it” thing to read. The books are also a little dated with the technology mentioned throughout (the newest was released in 2011 after all), but, at least for me, that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment. I don’t read them to hear about the iPhone models the girls have.

I read these books for the friendship I just never had: theirs.

May 8, 2017

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

By now I’d be more surprised if you hadn’t read a review of Angie Thomas’s debut novel than if you had. This book has been a hot topic in the book community, with innumerable readers and reviewers singing its praises–and rightly so. This might just turn into another review in a whole sea of them, but I can’t help sharing how much I loved it.

The Hate U Give is about Starr Carter, a sixteen-year-old girl living two lives: one in her poor neighborhood and one at her prep school. When Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of a childhood friend at the hands of a cop, she comes face to face with the reactions of both communities and her own feelings of guilt, fear, and responsibility.

Undoubtedly this novel is timely; the story it tells and the way Thomas tells it are poignant, heartbreaking, and necessary. She explores the stark contrasts and surprising similarities between Starr’s two worlds and the way they collide right alongside her own frustration and confusion between the two, never quite feeling accepted and never quite knowing where she fits in. One of the most striking–if not surprising–differences is in the reactions of Starr’s two communities to the tragedy she witnesses and how those around her affect her decision whether or not to speak out as a witness.

One of my favorite aspects of the novel was Starr’s family and her relationship with them. I fell in love with every member of her family and their own love for each other, even if she doubted it herself at times. They’re not  perfect and they’re far from the nuclear model, but Thomas uses those things to craft some amazing depth to her characters, examining why they choose to do the things that don’t seem like the best choice, but in actuality feel like their only choice. She also created great variety in the characters she presents to readers, from a willfully ignorant girl who refuses to see her own prejudice to a boy who says dumb things to Starr but acknowledges and learns from his mistakes to a woman who isn’t quite the mother we’re made to think she is, for better or worse.

Honestly, I don’t know how this is her first novel. Angie Thomas shows incredible skill in storytelling. I can only look forward to more beautiful, heartwrenching books like this one from her. If you haven’t read this one yet, I can’t recommend it enough and hope you get the chance and make the choice to do so. The Hate U Give is an important story that the world needed right now, and I think Thomas was an amazing person to share it with us.

April 14, 2017

I Don’t Know What I Expected But It Wasn’t That: The Duff by Kody Keplinger

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the duff by kody keplinger

This is what I get for knowing the summary–just the summary–of a book’s movie adaptation before I get into reading the source material. It seemed like, through no fault of the author, every other turn of a page brought me further from what I’d expected of the novel and toward something surprising, scandalous, and altogether satisfying. So in case you, like I, have a misconception about Kody Keplinger’s The Duff, allow me to enlighten you.

Bianca Piper has just been informed by the novel’s resident jackass, Wesley Rush, that she’s the “Duff” of her friend group–the Designated Ugly Fat Friend, whose purpose in the eyes of the aforementioned jackass and guys like him is to help boost the appeal of the more attractive girls around her and to garner their sympathy when he talks to her. After this revelation, Bianca finds her life becoming a mess, and her only distraction is in the “enemies-with-benefits” relationship she impulsively strikes up with…the jackass.

I was taken aback as I read the first couple of chapters because–fair warning if you were planning on handing this to your child under fifteen or so–the book turned out to have way more swearing and sex than I was used to in a young adult novel. Even though I’m not opposed to those things, I was caught off guard at first. Once I got used to this ultimately refreshing and arguably realistic style to the novel, I felt like I slipped easily into the rest of Bianca’s world. In fact, while I couldn’t relate too all of the wild teen sex of the novel, I definitely had a mouth like Bianca’s when I was her age, so it lent credence to the story, in my opinion.

I like to read the author bios at the end of books, and reading Keplinger’s I learned that she wrote The Duff while she was in her senior year of school, and while it’d be easy to write this book off as a teen writer’s whimsical effort and to claim that inexperience was a detriment to the novel, that wasn’t the case here at all. As it happens, this is something that I think benefited the veracity of the novel. Keplinger wasn’t writing with that disconnect that some adults can have when they’re writing for young adults and teens, so while it could give a youthfulness to the style of the writing, it didn’t drag down the story in anyway. It wasn’t messy or overwrought; Keplinger’s novel touches on a number of important factors and issues in a teen’s life and does so in a way that doesn’t make them feel slapdash or detached from one another.

Keplinger features significant issues–family problems, crumbling self-confidence, rocky friendships–throughout the story, and she does so in a heartfelt, honest way. There’s no talking down to the reader, no saccharine moments (not with sharp-tongued Bianca as the narrator), and no drawn out love triangle–even if Bianca does have her eye on two boys at times. There’s just a story with heart that tugged at my own as I read.

I laughed. I cried. I enjoyed the hell out of this book.

March 10, 2017

Origins of an Agent: Devil’s Advocate by Jonathan Maberry

I started watching The X-Files in middle school, toward the end of the series. At the time, I was in love with everything on the Sci Fi channel (now Syfy). TV was doing an excellent job of fueling my obsession with the paranormal and unexplained, so when I saw reruns of The X-Files showing, I gave them a shot. I was hooked. It became one of the shows I would choose any time I saw it on the TV guide listing, even if an episode had already started, even if I was watching them out of order–which I was.

Fifteen years later, and it’s still one of my favorite TV series, so when I stumbled upon The X-Files Origins: Devil’s Advocate by Jonathan Maberry in the teen section of our local library, I snatched it right up. I didn’t even read the synopsis until I got home; I couldn’t resist the bold, glaring X on the cover.

Devil’s Advocate is a story about fifteen-year-old Dana Scully and her life as she’s thrust into a murder mystery involving schoolmates, angels, and mysterious men in black. The story finds Dana beginning to question her own sanity as she searches for help and answers before anyone else can get hurt. With the guidance of the local new age shop owner and employees, along with her own sister, Dana faces the dangers that will only continue to follow her as she grows up: murder, mayhem, and that which she cannot explain.

What I loved about this book was the way it made reference to characters The X-Files fans already know, and it afforded us another opportunity to interact with them via young Dana Scully. The two most prominent relationships are those between Dana and her sister, Melissa, and Dana and her father. They’re portrayed in ways that we already know as fans of the series–Dana’s skepticism making an appearance opposite Melissa’s unwavering belief; her already strained relationship with her military father–but they do so without alienating newcomers at the same time. Particularly of note was the way the story showed the lead up to Dana and Melissa’s divergence of beliefs, giving that backstory to fans both old and new.

Maberry also manages to do a skillful job of keeping readers on their toes, trying to figure out who the killer of the story is. A mystery/thriller can be disappointing if readers figure out the answers too early on, but Maberry makes it possible for a number of people to be suspects, or at the very least untrustworthy in some way that readers suspect but can’t put a finger on. I found myself jumping around with suspicions as I read, even at times when I knew Dana might be wrong, or at the very least reacting quicker than she should in a situation (even if her instincts were right). I couldn’t help growing just as emotional as she was, even if I knew better. Maberry has an excellent way of making readers feel for Dana and feel with her as she seems to struggle against everyone around her.

Some of the novel’s opening came off rather clunky, most noticeably when Maberry is describing Dana and Melissa’s ages in relation to one another, but overall, Devil’s Advocate is a fun read that gives a new depth to a story that some already know and others haven’t had the pleasure of diving into yet. If you like fan fiction but are looking for something more believably linked to the source material, as we all know fan fiction can take some serious liberties at times, I would highly recommend giving this book a shot. I know I’ll be searching my library for Mulder’s story, by Kami Garcia, on my next trip.

February 17, 2017

Timeline of an American Tragedy: Columbine by Dave Cullen

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I had just turned eight only a month before. On April 20, 1999, I came home from school, like so many of us would, to see endless news coverage of the breaking story.  I didn’t understand quite what was going on, but the incident, the image of terror out on the lawn of a high school, is not something I’ve forgotten over the years, especially with the way history keeps repeating.

At its occurrence, Columbine was the worst school shooting in history and remained so for years. While it’s been surpassed in the time since, its shadow lingers. People are still fascinated and confused by what happened. Dave Cullen’s Columbine sheds a light on the story that I, and I’m sure plenty of others, can use to navigate just what happened that morning.

Cullen’s work is written in a way that keeps readers’ attention, taking us through the timeline in a well-crafted, non-linear way. Between chapters on the shooting and its years of aftermath, we’re shown the events leading up to the disaster and the factors in Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s lives that contributed. It’s an excellent back and forth, keeping the story from becoming weighed down by traditional narrative structure.

Maybe it’s a result of my age at the time, but there were so many details that I’d never known before, from the bombs the two boys attempted to use to the truth that they were not, as the media would repeat, bullied loners exacting revenge on their (jock) tormentors. Their attack was indiscriminate. It was fueled by Eric’s unrepentant hatred for humanity and Dylan’s devastating struggle with depression. It’s a story we think we know from the echoes of nearly two decades, and these flawed beliefs are still prevalent. Columbine teaches readers a necessary lesson otherwise.

This book is so thorough and immersive, without being an overwhelming dump of facts, that unless you were there, I’m willing to be it’ll teach you something new. I’d also wager that these revelations will leave you even more upset over the ordeal than anticipated. Cullen covers the lives of victims, the police response, and the affected families, including those of Dylan and Eric. Each story is enraging and heartbreaking, but also riveting and necessary.

In the revised/expanded edition of 2016, Cullen added “more scans of the killers’ writing and sample pages from the Columbine Teachers’ Guide [he] created.” The book does not include graphic photos; the descriptions of the horror are likely enough for the average reader. (Nonetheless, I will admit to looking up news footage online while reading one night; I ended up with nightmares.) These added materials, however, add another layer to what Cullen has to tell about Dylan and Eric. To read excerpts in the clean text of a professionally bound book is good. To read their hatred and frustrations in their own hand is a whole other experience that can send chills just as easily as a photo might.

You don’t need to be a true crime addict to experience this book, though it won’t hurt. Rather than being dry and laden with facts, this book is crafted to be accessible, educational, and illuminating. Dave Cullen paints such a picture of the entire tragedy that is clearer than anything I’ve experienced on the topic before (including high school assemblies and the Bowling for Columbine documentary), and if you have any desire to learn about the event, let this be your first resource.


February 10, 2017

Witches! Ghosts! Curses!: How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather

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A good ghost story leaves you spooked, reconsidering a nighttime bathroom trip in the dark. A good drama has you gripping your seat and turning page after page–maybe skipping that bathroom break again. As I read my way through Adriana Mather’s How to Hang a Witch, I felt the pleasant mingling of both–and I really needed to pee.

A descendant of influential player to the Salem Witch Trials Cotton Mather, the author uses her family history, personal experience from a trip to Salem, Massachusetts, and the greater culture of high school bullying as the bases for her novel.

With her father in a coma, Samantha Mather–also of relation to Cotton–and her stepmother move to Sam’s grandmother’s house in Salem. Before even sitting down in her homeroom on the first day of school, Sam finds herself shunned and scorned by her peers. For years, she’s believed she was cursed, with a string of bad luck affecting those who dare to get close to her, but these suspicions and experiences come to a head for her when townspeople of Salem begin dying. Sam soon finds herself as the prime suspect, named both a murderer–and a witch.

The novel dives into the world of high school and being an outsider, with a thrilling tinge of ghost story and witchcraft added into the pot. Mather does a fantastic job of making both Sam and the reader second guess the people around her. Throughout the novel, I found myself carefully eyeing a number of characters after certain suspect circumstances arose, wondering, Who had betrayed Sam? Who was the real murderer? It often feels like I can guess the answer to a whodunit early in most novels (an experience I had while reading In a Dark, Dark Wood several months ago), but with How to Hang a Witch, I was almost surprised by the reveal, guessing the answer only at the last minute.

Even after the true antagonist is revealed, the story doesn’t slow down, with a spectacular fight sequence I never expected from the description on the book jacket. In fact, it felt like much of the book wasn’t what I expected and managed to exceed my original assumptions. While I was excited at the prospect of the novel, the inclusion of a ghost in the plot made me suspicious; for the most part, paranormal romances have gotten stale in the young adult genre, and I was anticipating getting stuck with that kind of mess. Mather, however, manages to keep the novel interesting without dipping far into the trope of will they/won’t they between teenage girl and (insert monster of your choice here).

To be honest, my only remote complaints would be the occasional simplicity of the writing style, with an abundance of “I ____” sentences that at times made reading feel abrupt and interrupted; and the boy-girl-boy love triangle, a trope that, much like girl/monster romance, wore me out by the end of the first Twilight novel when I read it many moons ago. For a long time I’ve been of the firm belief that there can be excitement, drama, and even romance without the need for a love triangle. However, Mather’s was nicely wrapped up and well-handled overall, so I have no interest in holding it against her.

This was a novel I found myself eagerly awaiting when I learned about it because I just had to give its premise a chance, and it’s one that did not disappoint. Adriana Mather handled her story well enough that I look forward to more ghost stories in my young adult reads, as well as seeing what else she has in store for us in the future.

January 23, 2017