Monday, June 18, 2018

The Outsider

The Outsider by Stephen King (2018)

A child is horribly murdered and mutilated, and all evidence on the scene points to an unlikely suspect - local Little League coach and all-around great guy Terry Maitland. However, Maitland also has an air-tight alibi. He was out of town with several of his teacher colleagues at a conference and was even caught on film at right around the time the child was killed. But how can you argue with DNA evidence? Detective Ralph Anderson and his colleagues don't think you can, but after arresting Maitland publicly and learning of his alibi, he has a lot to answer for. This is just the beginning of Stephen King's newest novel, which goes on for over 500 pages and ends up somewhere unexpected.

Somehow, I thought this book was more of a crime/mystery novel than traditional Stephen King fare. It's definitely about a crime, but things got pretty weird quickly. Without giving too much away (because everything I describe above happens very early) I will mention that the story brings in some elements inspired by folklore which can, of course, be incredibly creepy and I like how it was used here. There was also a real-life tragic event that happened in the past at a tourist attraction which also lent quite a creepy feeling to the story.

If you've read King's Bill Hodges trilogy you'll recognize one character, Holly Gibney, who is intriguing enough in her own right to make me want to finally pick those books up. As always, King seems to pull his characters out of real life, each one fully-formed and multi-dimensional as people you see every day. I don't know how he does this. They're all imperfect - some more than others - and watching Ralph Anderson grapple to explain something inexplicable, or Marcy Maitland try to reconcile her husband with the horrible person who committed a violent crime was satisfying, but familiar to anyone who's read Stephen King before.

The Outsider is pretty long, and I spent a full week and a half reading it, but it was well worth the ride. I can't exactly say I enjoyed it, as so much of it made me feel rather uncomfortable and a bit icky, but it was so well crafted and satisfying and I definitely liked spending time with these characters as they tried to unravel this strange mystery.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Long Way Down

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (2017)

Long Way Down is a novel in verse about a teenager named Will whose older brother was just shot and killed. Will has been taught the rules since a young age: no crying, no snitching, get revenge. So he finds his brother's gun and sets out to get revenge on the person he's sure is responsible for his brother's murder. He gets in the elevator and starts down. On every floor, another person gets on - a person who is dead and who tells Will another part of the interconnected story leading up to this moment.

It was a very quick read, though you do get a lot of story. At least enough to know that Will is learning a lot about where and how things can go very wrong when you follow these rules he's been given. It's clear that following them will only lead to more violence and death. It's also clear that he doesn't even know for sure who killed his brother, even though he feels sure about it.

I keep hearing in my head what my former Teen Librarian from a couple of years ago would say every time she read something about a black kid that involved the inner city and violence. She got very frustrated that the only black kids represented in teen lit lived in the inner city, came from broken homes, were involved in gangs, etc. So I do keep thinking about that. However, that's taking a broad view of teen books which, while important, isn't the whole story. This book itself is undoubtedly good. It's popular and has won awards. It really packs a punch. It says a lot with relatively few words.

At the same time, this sparseness of words is what I think kept me from getting into this story as much as I would have liked. I think I just don't love the novel-in-verse format. I know I loved The Good Braider, but that used a slightly different style of verse that was a little denser. Here, there really were just a smattering of words on each page. They were well-chosen words, but for me, I just like more of them, if that makes sense.

As a side note, I've heard that the audio version of this book, which Reynolds narrates, is fantastic. I considered that format, but it's only about an hour and a half long and I was looking for something to fill more hours of my commute.

This is the second book by Jason Reynolds that I've read (after Ghost, which I liked more) and I think I'll probably read more of his books. I'm especially interested in The Boy in the Black Suit and All American Boys.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Go, Went, Gone

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2017)


A newly-retired professor in Berlin is faced with empty, unstructured days. Not long into his retirement, Richard learns that a group of African refugees are demonstrating in Alexanderplatz. He becomes curious and goes to visit them, becoming very invested in their lives as he continues to learn their stories and educate himself about their home countries and the situation they are now in.

They came from different countries in Africa, all by way of Libya. From there they made it to Italy and were there for a while before ending up in Germany. This complicated route also complicated their legal status, so although they all wanted to find work and start their new lives, they were instead relegated to temporary shelters where they need to wait for their cases to be processed. Richard stuck with them as they were moved to a different facility, and tried to help them with their cases as much as possible.

There was so much to like about this book. Richard's quiet, routine life. The way he was drawn slowly into the lives of these men just because he didn't have much to do and his curiosity was piqued. There was a point at which I was afraid he was just being nosy or a half-hearted do-gooder white person, but he really cared and he took steps to try and help, with little regard for his own comfort and convenience. He really was a decent human being who wanted other human beings to have the lives they deserved.

I loved how closely he listened to the stories the refugees told him, and how he started spending time learning everything he could about their countries and their situations. He really thought about what they were going through, and what it must be like to be in their situations. It spilled over into his private life, of course, through conversations with various friends. Some also took up the cause, while others were less empathetic.

He's not perfect. He had a lover, even while his wife was alive, and he doesn't feel bad about it. Even as he visits the refugees, he becomes attracted to the Ethiopian woman who is teaching them German, and tries to maneuver opportunities to talk to her. But his heart is in the right place, and he's a humble man who is willing to admit what he doesn't know and tries to learn as much as he can in order to be a better person.

The writing was lovely, which I always feel strange commenting on when the book has been translated because I don't know how faithful it is to the original. But much of the pleasure of this book is how it's written. Here's a passage I like:

"He walks past the vacant lot where until recently a large villa stood with bay windows, a glassed-in veranda, and carved wooden ornaments, but now there's nothing but pallid sand waiting for the new construction to begin-- there's no better way to make history disappear than to unleash money, money roaming free has a worse bite than an attack dog, it can effortlessly bite an entire building out of existence, Richard thinks."

Through it all is another small thread, in which a man drowned in the lake near Richard's house last summer and the body has not yet been recovered. Nobody will swim there, except tourists who don't know better, and Richard thinks about it now and then throughout the book. It's just a little thing in the background, but it somehow added to the overall feeling of the story. Similarly, Richard often hearkens back to the days when Berlin was divided by a wall and he lived in the East. Borders are important in this story.

This isn't a fast-paced novel by any means and there's not a lot of action. It's literary to be sure (even though I'm not certain exactly what that means.) It's quiet and introspective and rather beautiful. Of course it's also timely, with today's divisive conversations about immigration and who should be living where, and what reasons are good enough to seek asylum in another country. It hasn't garnered a lot of attention - I hadn't even heard of it until I received it as a gift - but it absolutely deserves to be widely read.

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Girl is Trouble

The Girl is Trouble by Kathryn Miller Haines (2012), narrated by Rachel Botchan

I recently re-read The Girl is Murder for my Not-So-Young Adult Book Group, and it spurred me to finally listen to the follow-up. In the first book, Iris and her dad had recently moved to the Lower East Side. He was injured at Pearl Harbor and her mother committed suicide, and now Iris had to leave her private school and nice neighborhood and live with a father she barely knew in modest accommodations while attending a new public school. He's a private investigator and she started helping him on cases, which he wasn't crazy about, and specifically one case involving a missing boy from Iris's school.

But now, we're getting back to Iris's mother's death. In the last book Iris heard a rumor that her mother had been having an affair, which maybe factored into her suicide. Now it looks like maybe it wasn't suicide at all. Meanwhile at school, someone has been putting anti-Semitic notes in the lockers of Jewish students, and Iris has been asked to investigate. It's World War II after all, and there are Nazi sympathizers even in the U.S. Although Iris herself is Jewish, she had felt relatively untouched by these sentiments though she was aware of Hitler and his ideas.

Iris and her friend Pearl have a conversation in which Iris mentions suspecting someone of being behind the notes, but says she can't believe it about them but if they did it they must have a good reason. Pearl says something very insightful to her. She says that even if it's her best friend she can't excuse them for it, because that's what leads to situations like in Europe. You need to speak up when someone does something wrong even if you like the person. It doesn't matter if they're a good person otherwise. The Nazis came to power in Europe because of otherwise good people being excused for bad behavior. I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it and it was a very powerful moment in this story, and also true. It's a valuable lesson for all of us, not just Iris.

There's so much more about this I found fascinating and relevant to any time where there's a rise in hatred towards certain groups of people and society is divisive in response. It gets very morally questionable in a way that I found kind of fascinating. It could lead to some great discussions, I think!

All the while, Iris is trying to chase down the person who she thinks murdered her mother, while ascertaining how much her father knows, and trying to figure out how her uncle Adam fits in. Plus, she's pretty sure her dad is hiding something from her and lying about where he's spending his time. She's also seeing a boy named Benny, who she became interested in during the first book, despite the fact that he insists on calling her Nancy Drew. (Ugh, boys and their stupid nicknames.)

As much as I liked the first book, I think this one was even better. Everything about the anti-Semitic notes at school, and the mysteries surrounding her mother was just SO interesting when you start finding out the secrets. Although it's a sequel and I do recommend the first book, I think this one can stand on its own. They were both great on audio too!