The Monday Check-In ~ 4/24/2017

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

What did I read last week?

Miniatures by John Scalzi: A collection of short (funny) fiction by one of my super-favorite sci-fi writers. My review is here.

The Book of Etta by Meg Elison: A follow-up to the powerful post-apocalyptic The Book of the Unnamed Midwife. My review is here.

Also:

I accidentally ended up rereading Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher over the weekend. How do you accidentally read a book? After binging the excellent TV series (see below), I picked the book back off the shelf to look up a particular moment, turned to the beginning of the book, and just kept reading.

My library hold request for book one of the graphic novel series March by Congressman John Lewis finally came in, and I read it immediately. It’s a wonderful, important book, perfect for the younger generation who might dismiss history as “boring”. And now, I’m waiting for book #2.

Pop culture goodness:

I wrote up my thoughts on 13 Reasons Why, after an intense week of binge-watching. You can find my post here; I’d love to hear others’ opinions!

I ended up watching the movie of The Girl With All the Gifts. I read the book when it came out, but needed a refresher before starting The Boy on the Bridge!

The movie was pretty good, and pretty gross at times. (My husband was in the kitchen while I was watching in the living room — he had to come see what all the disgusting noises were from). I liked the cast, and thought the girl playing Melanie was incredible.

Fresh Catch:

One new book this week:

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:
 

I’m juggling three books at the moment:

  • The Book Collector by Alice Thompson
  • The Boy on the Bridge by M. R. Carey
  • Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Now playing via audiobook:

Hamilton! This biography is actually fascinating — but it’s really long. I’ve amped up my listening speed to 1.25x, which makes it a bit weirdly fast at times, but helps the entire listening project feel less daunting. I’ve gotten through about 20% so far. Onward I go!

Ongoing reads:

MOBYOne Hundred Years of Solitude

My book group is reading and discussing Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon — 2 chapters per week — with an end date coming up in June.

Outlander Book Club’s group read of One Hundred Years of Solitude continues. I’m hanging in there — barely — but I can’t say I’m enjoying it much.

So many books, so little time…

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TV Reaction: Thirteen Reasons Why

Whew. What an intense experience. I just finished binge-watching Thirteen Reasons Why on Netflix, and I’m still seeing certain scenes on repeat in my head.

Kudos to Netflix and the show’s producers for bringing the YA novel to the screen with such thoughtfulness and sensitivity.

Warning: This post will include plot spoilers for both the TV series and the book.

I read the book Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher years ago, at the urging of my then-high school-aged daughter. I remember being really moved and upset by it, but really didn’t remember a whole lot more than the basic plot outline:

Teen girl commits suicide, and leaves behind a series of cassettes on which she narrates all the reasons for her decision to end her life. Each cassette and each reason corresponds with a person who contributed to her suicide, in ways big or small — and her instructions are that each person must listen to the tapes, then pass them on to the next person mentioned, or face consequences.

I honestly didn’t remember much more than that, except some rosy-eyed, not willing to face reality portion of my brain managed to half-convince myself that at the end of the book, we’d discover it was all a ruse — that the girl was really alive and well somewhere, and that the tapes and suicide were a big con to get revenge on her tormentors. Maybe it was the mommy portion of my brain driving me to this wishful thinking — I just recoiled so instinctively from the idea of a teen girl, similar in age to my own daughter, making such a horrific choice.

Needless to say, I was very wrong. Yes, the girl is dead. She really did kill herself, and there’s no magical fix for that.

So… the TV series.

I was able to start viewing it without a whole lot of preconceptions about the plot or characters, since (as mentioned) I was quite fuzzy on the details of the books after so many years. I watched the show with my 14-year-old son, a high school freshman, and that in and of itself was a remarkable experience.

Wow. This isn’t an actual review or anything. For starters, I don’t really review TV. Beyond that, I wouldn’t really know where to start, so I’m just sharing my thoughts and reactions instead.

Let me kick this off by saying that the casting for Thirteen Reasons Why is fantastic. The show really rests on the shoulders of its young cast. Yes, there are adults — parents, school administrators, etc — and they were great too, but it’s largely the teen characters who evoke the emotions and carry the burden of the storyline’s heaviest moments.

Hannah Baker is dead, clearly and absolutely (lest any of my previous fantasies still linger). Clay Jensen is the nice boy who always liked Hannah, and wanted more, but never really made it out of the friend zone and never understood why. When Clay finds the box of tapes on his front porch about two weeks after Hannah’s death, he’s stunned by what he hears. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s #11 on the tapes, so as he listens, he’s also in horrible suspense. He doesn’t think he ever mistreated Hannah, yet she’s included him in her list of “reasons why”. Clay listens to the recordings in enormous pain, as he learns all that Hannah suffered, and even more, comes to understand all the ways he and everybody else let her down or betrayed her trust or weren’t there at the crucial moment.

It’s truly heartbreaking to watch. As told through flashbacks, Hannah is a vivacious, lovely, bright girl when she starts at her new school at the beginning of her sophomore year. And bit by bit, moment by moment, her soul is crushed, by malicious rumors, whispers about being “easy” or a “slut”, abandonment by friends, and moments of physical and cyber bullying — and much more. Any one of those elements on their own would be difficult; as an accumulation, it becomes unbearable.

We also see Hannah’s parents in the aftermath, utterly broken and suffering horribly, searching for any sorts of explanation that might help them understand why their beautiful girl should take her own life. Watching them is almost too much. As a parent, it took my breath away.

I should mention too that there are a few moments that are brutally graphic, but I think necessary. There are two different rape scenes, which are not done in any way gratuitously, but do show unflinchingly just how horrible those assaults are. The final episode does show Hannah’s suicide, and does not pull back at all from showing her take a razor blade to her arms and bleed out in the bathtub. It’s excruciating.

That said, I applaud the producers for not softening those moments. There’s nothing glamorous here. It’s painful and real. The show does a very good job of showing us how the teen brain doesn’t function the way a fully developed adult brain does. For Hannah, there’s no seeing past her present. She can’t even begin to envision a world that’s better than where she is. She internalizes everything and sees herself as worthless, so that even when something good is happening, she can’t feel worthy — and can’t see herself as being able to ask for or get help.

Now, I did have some quibbles with certain elements of the show. In the book, as I recall (and please correct me if I’m wrong), we only see the story through Hannah’s tapes and Clay’s experience listening to them, which he does all in one night. In the show, Clay takes much longer to get through them all, and meanwhile the ten people who come earlier in the tapes all know that he’s listening. There’s a lot of whispering and plotting among these characters who are scrambling to protect themselves and their secrets, and even contemplate finding a way to stop Clay before he can expose them.

That’s all well and good, but there are varying degrees of guilt and responsibility here, and some of the reactions don’t exactly make sense, especially as each tape gets its own full hour episode to explore. Yes, there are some heinous acts described — but some of the reasons are much smaller, pettier things. While I can’t deny that they hurt Hannah, I can’t understand why some of these characters become so desperate to hide the truth, especially as they’ve all listened to all the tapes and know that they’re being lumped together with others who’ve actually committed crimes.

Again, spoilers here:

There’s a top athlete, Bryce, who rapes both Hannah and another girl. There’s Bryce’s friend who stands by while Bryce rapes his girlfriend. With less bad intention but still a terrible outcome, there’s a girl who doesn’t report when she drunkenly knocks down a stop-sign, which leads to a car accident that kills another student. These are all terrible, awful, outrageous deeds.

But then again, there’s Courtney, a popular, perfect girl who abandons her friendship with Hannah when a peeping Tom catches Courtney and Hannah sharing a drunken kiss on a dare. And there’s a boy who publishes a very personal poem of Hannah’s without her permission — and even though it’s anonymous, everyone realizes it’s Hannah’s. Another boy creates and passes around a list of who’s hot and who’s not, which leads to some gross objectification of Hannah and adds to her reputation as the class slut. On and on. Again, I’m not making light of any of this from Hannah’s perspective — but for the other characters, I had a hard time believing that some of them could be so crippled by their own shame over careless or insensitive — but not criminal — behaviors that they wouldn’t turn in the rapist or come together to share the truth with Hannah’s parents.

There’s also a moment of Hannah’s own shameful behavior that’s really hard to forgive. Hannah is IN THE ROOM when her former best friend is raped, and she’s too stunned and frightened to intervene or scream or call for help — and as a viewer, that’s hard to get past. I totally understand that this adds to Hannah’s sense of shame and failure, but it was hard to believe that this happened and that she acted that way.

After the final episode, Netflix had available another 30-minute behind-the-scenes piece that’s quite compelling as well, which aims at its teen viewers directly. Through comments and interviews with the cast, writers, and health care professionals, there’s important information shared about resources, getting help, speaking out, and the finality of suicide, as well as insights into teen psychology and the impact of abuse and bullying. It’s meant to be direct, helpful, and non-preachy, and I thought it was an important wrap-up (which I hope the show’s teen viewers stuck around for). Interestingly, this piece included advice about how to get help, but the episodes themselves didn’t. It would have been better, I think, to also include suicide hotline information at the end of each episode.

Watching the show with my son was really interesting and important. He had no patience for my clueless-parent questions (“does anyone act this way at your school?” or “do you ever feel bullied”), but he did frequently tell me to hit the pause button so he could comment or ask a question. He didn’t always have sympathy for Hannah (“God! Why does she make everything about her? She’s so dramatic!”), but this gave us a chance to talk about depression and victimization and how someone can internalize things to such a degree. We talked about how if Hannah had just had one or two of these experiences, maybe she could have gotten past it, but how it all piled on top of one another until she was drowning.

We talked about whose misdeeds were the worst. Well, clearly, the rapist, but after him, where does the culpability lie, and are there shades of gray? He initially felt really sorry for the school counselor who failed to help Hannah when she came to him on her last day. My son didn’t feel that it was fair of Hannah and Clay to blame him so much for not doing enough. This gave me a good opportunity to talk with him about adult responsibility and the role the school officials are supposed to play. Earlier, we see that this is a man with a stressful home life, but the show doesn’t let him off the hook. Maybe he was distracted, and maybe Hannah wasn’t entirely forthcoming, but this was clearly a girl in distress who communicated that she’d been the victim of a sexual assault and felt that she wanted everything to stop — and he let her walk out of his office.

There’s so much more, but I’ve really rambled on quite a lot already. Obviously, this show really affected me, and has left me with so much still to process and think about. Thirteen Reasons Why is just so well done, and so important. It’s not a sensationalized show aimed at teens. I saw one review describe it (paraphrasing here) as an adult show about teens, and I think that’s right. It’s important viewing, and I can’t stress enough how glad I am that I watched it with my son.

In terms of other pop culture moments, it would be a shame if people assumed that Thirteen Reasons Why is a teen drama (like Pretty Little Liars or many of the CW’s shows). The two TV shows that I was most reminded of, in weird ways, are Veronica Mars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer — two of my all-time favorites. Like Veronica Mars, Thirteen Reasons Why spins a complicated web of causes and effects, showing the seemingly infinite connections between the various characters, and how each decision and casual action or cruelty can lead to unexpected and even devastating effects. (Unlike Veronica Mars, there’s little to no humor to lighten the moments. While Veronica Mars dealt with life and death issues, destroyed reputations, rape, and abuse, its quippy dialogue and characters kept it floating along with a slightly sunnier tone.) I was reminded of the Buffy episode, Out of Mind, Out of Sight, in which a high school student literally becomes invisible after being unseen and unnoticed by her classmates for too long. Obviously, no supernatural elements in Thirteen Reasons Why, but there is a similar seriousness paid to high school power dynamics that resonates as true and important to note.

Clearly, I consider Thirteen Reasons Why to be important viewing! And if you have a high school student in your life, consider watching the series with him or her, and see where your conversations lead you.

So, thanks for sticking with me for my rambles! I’d love to hear other people’s reactions. Did you watch Thirteen Reasons Why? What did you think?

Book Review: The Book of Etta

 

In the gripping sequel to the Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, one woman undertakes a desperate journey to rescue the future.

Etta comes from Nowhere, a village of survivors of the great plague that wiped away the world that was. In the world that is, women are scarce and childbearing is dangerous…yet desperately necessary for humankind’s future. Mothers and midwives are sacred, but Etta has a different calling. As a scavenger. Loyal to the village but living on her own terms, Etta roams the desolate territory beyond: salvaging useful relics of the ruined past and braving the threat of brutal slave traders, who are seeking women and girls to sell and subjugate.

When slavers seize those she loves, Etta vows to release and avenge them. But her mission will lead her to the stronghold of the Lion—a tyrant who dominates the innocent with terror and violence. There, with no allies and few weapons besides her wits and will, she will risk both body and spirit not only to save lives but also to liberate a new world’s destiny.

The Book of Etta is an interesting follow-up to The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (review), but I didn’t wholeheartedly love it. It’s incredibly interesting and compelling, but there are ways in which I felt it fell a bit short of its potential.

Etta takes place a couple of hundred years after the plague, and it’s fascinating to see how written and oral histories capture the time before and the new types of societies that have arisen afterward. The people living at the time of Etta live mostly in isolated settlements, relying on the rare traveler or trader for outside news, mainly ignorant of anything happening in the greater world or really anything outside their own communities’ walls.

In Nowhere, Etta’s home, women are either Midwives or Mothers. While there are far more men than women, the men are subservient, working for the good of the women and living in Hives built around a central woman. The books left by the unnamed midwife have become holy scriptures to the people of Nowhere, and make clear that most surviving women live as slaves, in abusive situations, or in hiding.

Nowhere seems ideal in some ways, yet even there, Etta feels stifled. As we learn in The Book of Etta, Etta’s gender identity is fluid and she’s romantically and sexually attracted to women, and there’s really no place in the Nowhere community for someone who doesn’t fit the approved roles, even in a woman-centric society.

When Etta ventures out into the world in her role as a raider, she changes into male clothing and thinks of herself as Eddy. The author switches pronouns when Etta is Eddy, which is actually a pretty neat narrative trick that requires the reader to pay attention, yet gives us immediate clues about Etta/Eddy’s inner life and how she/he views her/his self at any moment. Through Etta/Eddy’s eyes, we see just how bad things can get for women. The worst is Estiel (STL = St. Louis), where a tyrant known as the Lion rules by force and terror, holds all females captive for breeding and sex, and raids outlying areas to take any females he can find, including babies and toddlers. Many women are “cut”, and many are drugged or beaten into submission as part of the Lion’s harem. In other communities, the men and women live separately, with men being allowed into the women’s zone for breeding rituals. Young boys may be catamites, castrated and forced into sexual servitude. Each community shows a different aspect of the horrors of the time. Through Etta/Eddy’s journey, we see what may be a hopeless yearning to find a place where labels and rigidly assigned roles are a thing of the past.

The plot is fast-paced and hard to look away from. And yet, there are certain things that made this book not quite successful for me. The Etta/Eddy distinction is interesting, but we end up spending too much time in Etta’s head, often to the detriment of the story’s continuity. It’s not entirely clear to me why Nowhere’s society would frown on relationships between women the way it does, other than a need to show that even a matriarchal power structure contains its own restrictions and limitations. A segment later in the book centers on a community that it literally underground, living in a series of tunnels and bunkers completely hidden below the earth. It’s quite interesting, but certain aspects of that society — its abundant fertility and the role of its leader and prophet — need more explanation, especially as Alma (the prophet) seems to have abilities that verge on the magical, an odd choice in a dystopian novel.

There are some truly horrifying scenes of abuse and rape. This is not an easy or pleasant book. I was reminded in some parts of Octavia Butler’s outstanding (and brutal) books, The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents.

The Book of Etta has an open ending, as one chapter of Etta’s world ends and the next has yet to be written. The author is working on book 3, The Book of Flora, which I’m very much looking forward to, as Flora is a fascinating and complex character who enters Etta’s life in this book, and clearly has her own story to be told.

All in all, I’m glad that I read The Book of Etta and plan to continue with the trilogy, even though the writing verges on being preachy from time to time. It’s still an interesting look at a terrible vision of the future, and provides some thought-provoking scenarios about gender and identity.

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The details:

Title: The Book of Etta
Author: Meg Elison
Publisher: 47North
Publication date: February 21, 2017
Length: 316 pages
Genre: Dystopian/post-apocalyptic
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Thursday Quotables: Final Girls

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Welcome to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

Final Girls by Mira Grant
(published 2017)

This novella is so scary and wonderful — it starts with what seems to be a straight-up, old-fashioned, horror story set-up, then morphs into something completely different, with devastatingly invasive technology and sociopathic corporate assassins. I’m in awe of Mira Grant!

Here are a few key selections:

On a horror note — the opening lines:

The wood is dark and the wood is deep and the trees claw at the sky with branches like bones, ripping holes in the canopy of clouds, revealing glimpses of a distant, rotting moon the color of dead flesh.

More:

A mother’s love is infinite. Shouldn’t her blood, unfairly spilled, be the same?

And later, on a much different note:

From there, it was a simple matter to roll the chair into the corner and replace it with a fresh one, unburdened by inconvenient corpses.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Add your Thursday Quotables post link in the comments section below… and I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week too.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

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Shelf Control #78: The Lucy Variations

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! Fore more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

Title: The Lucy Variations
Author: Sara Zarr
Published: 2013
Length: 309 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Lucy Beck-Moreau once had a promising future as a concert pianist. The right people knew her name, her performances were booked months in advance, and her future seemed certain.

That was all before she turned fourteen.

Now, at sixteen, it’s over. A death, and a betrayal, led her to walk away. That leaves her talented ten-year-old brother, Gus, to shoulder the full weight of the Beck-Moreau family expectations. Then Gus gets a new piano teacher who is young, kind, and interested in helping Lucy rekindle her love of piano — on her own terms. But when you’re used to performing for sold-out audiences and world-famous critics, can you ever learn to play just for yourself?

The Lucy Variations is a story of one girl’s struggle to reclaim her love of music and herself. It’s about finding joy again, even when things don’t go according to plan. Because life isn’t a performance, and everyone deserves the chance to make a few mistakes along the way.

How I got it:

I picked up a used copy online.

When I got it:

After reading Roomies, which made me want to read more by Sara Zarr.

Why I want to read it:

Having a pianist at the center of a YA novel reminds me a little of The Sea of Tranquility (review), which was such a powerful read — plus, having read two Sara Zarr books by now, I have a lot of confidence in her ability to tell a story that feels real and puts unusual young women in the spotlight.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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A Miniature Review of Miniatures by John Scalzi

The ex-planet Pluto has a few choice words about being thrown out of the solar system. A listing of alternate histories tells you all the various ways Hitler has died. A lawyer sues an interplanetary union for dangerous working conditions. And four artificial intelligences explain, in increasingly worrying detail, how they plan not to destroy humanity.

Welcome to Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi.

These four stories, along with fourteen other pieces, have one thing in common: They’re short, sharp, and to the point—science fiction in miniature, with none of the stories longer than 2,300 words. But in that short space exist entire universes, absurd situations, and the sort of futuristic humor that propelled Scalzi to a Hugo with his novel Redshirts. Not to mention yogurt taking over the world (as it would).

Spanning the years from 1991 to 2016, this collection is a quarter century of Scalzi at his briefest and best, and features four never-before-printed stories, exclusive to this collection: “Morning Announcements at the Lucas Interspecies School for Troubled Youth,” “Your Smart Appliances Talk About You Behind Your Back,” “Important Holidays on Gronghu” and “The AI Are Absolutely Positively Without a Doubt Not Here to End Humanity, Honest.”

Okay, if those story titles don’t already have you laughing til your belly aches, then this may not be the book for you.

For me, it was perfect! John Scalzi’s science fiction never lets me down, and these (very) short pieces are just a treat. Funny, creative, unexpected, and silly, there’s plenty here to tickle and delight (unless you’re a total curmudgeon and have no patience for silliness… in which case, move along. Nothing to see here.)

The book itself is adorable, slightly smaller than usual for a hardcover (here’s a photo of my book plus some desk accessories, to give you a sense of scale without forcing me to get up and leave my desk):

The original hardcover printing was a limited run (and I think may no longer be available), but it is available in e-book format. Here’s the inside of my book, all numbered and everything!

Besides the utter cuteness of the physical book, what about the content?

Fabulous, of course! If I had to pick, I’d say my favorites are a dialogue among different AIs who are definitely not planning to take over the world, a cat’s-eye view of domestic domination, a supermarket workers’ guide to dealing with unusual alien life forms and their customs, and the interview with a celebrity agent for superheroes.

Oh, and let’s not forget the interviews with smart appliances, who spill the dirt on their owners. Makes me quite sure that I never ever need smart machines in my house. I couldn’t take the gossip.

Those are a just a few of the highlights, but really, all of the stories are terrific. What’s more, they’re super short, so this book can be enjoyed in bite-sized pieces or all in one sitting — either way, not a big time commitment.

If you like your sci-fi with a big heaping of funny, you’ll definitely want to treat yourself to this collection. I think I’ll be thumbing through Miniatures pretty regularly, whenever I need a little jolt of silly to brighten my day.

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The details:

Title: Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Publication date: December 31, 2016
Length: 142 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

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The Monday Check-In ~ 4/17/2017

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life:

 

Ugh. Can I get a do-over for last week? I spent almost all week sitting around my house or lying in bed, with a cough/cold/flu that just refuses to go away. I never thought I’d say this, but I’d rather be back at work!

 

 

What did I read last week?


Honestly Ben by Bill Konigsberg: I absolutely loved this YA novel, which is the sequel to another book I loved, Openly Straight. Check out my review of Honestly Ben, here.

Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox: I liked but didn’t love this story of family, love, magic, and secrets — disappointing, but I adored this author’s Dreamhunter Duet, and had hoped to feel the same about this one.

Final Girls by Mira Grant: This new novella is everything you’d expect from Mira Grant — a fast-paced, hold-your-breath, scary, compelling blend of horror story nightmares and modern-technology-run-amok disasters. A terrific read.

West With the Night by Beryl Markham: I’ve had this book on my shelf for YEARS… and I can finally say I’ve read it! Sometimes, it takes a commitment — like my book group discussion coming up this week — to force me into reading something that I’ve had pending for so long. A fascinating memoir! Unfortunately, my foggy head left me perhaps not in the best frame of mind to fully appreciate it, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Pop culture goodness:

Anyone else watching 13 Reasons Why on Netflix? I’ve only watched the first two episodes so far, but it’s good! I read the book years ago, but the details have really faded for me, so most of the plot of the show feels fresh and surprising. I hope the rest of the episodes are just as powerful.

Fresh Catch:

I treated myself to books 4 and 5 in the incredible Expanse sci-fi series:

I still need to start #3, but hey, it doesn’t hurt to plan ahead!

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:
 

I’m bouncing back and forth between two very different books at the moment:

  • The Book of Etta by Meg Elison: A follow-up to the powerful post-apocalyptic The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (review).
  • Miniatures by John Scalzi: A collection of short fiction by one of my super-favorite sci-fi writers.
Now playing via audiobook:

Hamilton! I’m continuing to feed my obsession by listening to the audiobook of Ron Chernow’s definitive biography of Alexander Hamilton. The audiobook is about 36 hours, so… this is going to take a while.

Ongoing reads:

MOBYOne Hundred Years of Solitude

My book group is reading and discussing Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon — 2 chapters per week — with an end date coming up in June.

Outlander Book Club’s group read of One Hundred Years of Solitude continues — although I’m not sure how long I’m going to last. I read about 50% of this book 20 years ago, and always swore I’d go back to it. Well, now I’m at about 50% again, and I’m just not having fun. Trying to stick it out…

So many books, so little time…

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TV Reaction: An outing on Survivor

Pardon me while I amble away from books (shocking!) for a moment while I ponder one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen on TV.

If you follow TV news at all, then you’ve probably seen the headlines all over social media last night and this morning. In a nutshell, on last night’s episode of Survivor, one contestant outed another as transgender at tribal council, in a desperate and despicable attempt to show to their tribe mates how “deceptive” the other player was.

It’s been over 12 hours since I watched the episode and I still can’t stop thinking about it. This was truly stunning TV.

The stupidity of Jeff Varner, and his lame attempt to link the other contestant’s personal history to somehow being an untrustworthy alliance member, is astonishing. And I think he realized it within minutes of it all coming out of his mouth — but again, perhaps he was simply unprepared for the outrage he’d stirred up and was operating in CYA mode.

On the positive side, it was uplifting and gratifying to see the other players’ uniformly harsh reaction to Varner. Zeke, who was outed, was absolutely supported, and all the others basically tore Varner apart. Host Jeff Probst did a great job of letting the drama play out, giving Zeke time to compose himself, and refusing to let Varner off the hook by accepting his ridiculous excuse of being desperate to stay in the game.

In the end, in what really seemed like an unprecedented situation, Varner was shown the door and kicked out without the usual ritual of a vote. As Probst noted, a vote was unnecessary. They all wanted Varner gone.

There are some astute and well-written pieces out there already about what happened and what it meant. I have nothing but admiration for Zeke, who managed to show grace toward Varner, who didn’t deserve Zeke’s kindness.

It should be noted that this round of Survivor was filmed last summer, so that all involved had time to prepare for last night’s episode. Zeke wrote a thoughtful and moving piece about his life and his determination to compete on Survivor, and I recommend checking it out, here.

I do wonder, though, why the producers didn’t either a) cut the outing from the episode or b) explain why it was included. I can envision a few different scenarios. Did this tribal have a huge impact on game play going forward? I’d imagine that Zeke’s teammates’ loyalty and support of him was magnified by Varner’s behavior, and might be an important part of the storytelling going forward. If future episodes have the outing and the impact on Zeke as a storyline, then the tribal is highly relevant. Likewise, if Zeke makes the finals (as I’m now really hoping he does), surely the events from last night will be a big piece of his Survivor story — the narrative that finalists pitch to the jury in a bid for the $1 million prize. Further, Zeke and the producers may have discussed the tribal together and reached an agreement, with Zeke’s full cooperation, in terms of what they chose to air.

I’m not pointing fingers at the producers at this point, but I do feel they do their viewers a disservice by simply airing the episode without including any explanation of why those chose to do so and whether Zeke had a say in the decision. Yes, Varner is the one who outed Zeke — but the Survivor production team decided to put it on the air. I’d just like to know why, and I hope with all my heart that Zeke will confirm that he was a part of the decision-making process and gave it his blessing.

In any case, that was a shocking moment, unlike anything I’d seen previously on TV. For my household, it was also a great catalyst for discussion. I watch Survivor each week with my 14-year-old son, and we have fun speculating on strategy, mocking ridiculousness, and cheering for our favorites. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that an episode of a reality competition show would spark a discussion of transgender rights and identity, but it did. The kiddo and I talked about Zeke, what his life must have been like, his courage, and why the outing was such a travesty and betrayal. And the kiddo really gets it, which was gratifying for me to see.

As the day progresses and I read more pieces about this Survivor episode and the fallout, it does seem as though Zeke was deeply involved in the process of bringing this episode to the air, with the Survivor production giving him support and agency in determining how his story was told. I certainly hope that’s the case, and I applaud Survivor overall for its sensitivity to key social issues and flashpoints. (I can’t help but wish that this had been made clearer during the episode itself — even via a text screen at the end — rather than leaving viewers hanging until more statements dribbled out.)

More than anything, I’m filled with awe and admiration for Zeke’s humanity and decency in a moment of shock and betrayal, and for his bravery in sharing his feelings over a matter he had the right to choose to keep private. Prior to watching yesterday’s episode, I was kind of “meh” about Zeke — he’s a fun player to watch, but I wasn’t necessarily rooting for him to win. But now? Team Zeke, all the way! And I suspect I’m far from alone.

For more on the events on yesterday’s Survivor, here are a few thoughtful pieces:

New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/12/opinion/outed-as-transgender-on-survivor-and-in-real-life.html
New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/13/arts/television/survivor-contestant-transgender.html?_r=0
Vulture: http://www.vulture.com/2017/04/cbs-defends-airing-survivor-trans-outing-episode-zeke-smith.html
E Online: http://www.eonline.com/news/843440/survivor-s-handling-of-zeke-smith-s-outing-proves-it-just-might-be-the-most-lowkey-progressive-reality-tv-series-around

 

Thursday Quotables: The (unofficial) Hogwarts Haggadah

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Welcome to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

The (unofficial) Hogwarts Haggadah by Moshe Rosenberg
(published 2017)

I admit, this is an unusual choice for a Thursday Quotables post! I bought a copy of the Hogwarts Haggadah before Passover this year, and while my family didn’t use it during our Seder, we did think it was quite cute and entertaining. Here are a few choice bits:

From a section called Destroying or Defanging the Wicked?:

Ron could not understand why Harry, after rescuing the diadem of Ravenclaw and escaping the trap set by Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle, would risk his life to go back and rescue Draco from the fiendfyre let loose by Crabbe in the Room of Requirement. But Harry, like Dumbledore the year before, saw more than a Death Eater-in-Training in Draco Malfoy. He believed that there was good in Malfoy that was worth saving, if only one could get past the threatening exterior.

The same attitude characterizes the treatment of the Wicked Son by some commentators on the Haggadah… [some technical numerology stuff goes here]… Take away the threatening but superficial fangs of the Wicked Son and you will see his true righteous potential beneath them.

Slavery Foretold – Prophecy and Choice:

At the end of Book Five, when he finally reveals to Harry the existence of the prophecy that Voldemort sought, Dumbledore makes clear to Harry that he need not fight Voldemort simply because the prophecy declared that “Neither can live while the other survives.” Harry still had a choice and, to him, that made all the difference. The very same point is made by Biblical commentators who ask why Pharaoh deserved to be punished if his enslavement of the Hebrews was foretold to Abraham. The Rambam (Maimonides) replies that Pharaoh was not bound to fulfill the prophecy, God could see to its fulfillment one way or another. Pharaoh had total freedom in choosing his path.

Bitterness: Where Do You Put It?:

Harry had much bitterness in his life. Deprived of his parents as a young child, his life at the Dursleys was misery. At Hogwarts, he was the target of both students and teachers through no fault of his own. And, of course, he was in constant life-threatening peril from the man who had killed his parents. If anyone had the right to feel embittered, it was Harry. And yet he showed that you can experience bitterness without becoming embittered. You can take the lessons of your suffering and use them to appreciate your blessings and spare others suffering. Voldemort and Snape would have done well to learn this lesson from Harry.

This could be a fun and cute way to share Passover with the young’uns, especially (obviously) if they’re HP fans.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Add your Thursday Quotables post link in the comments section below… and I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week too.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

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Book Review: Honestly Ben

Ben Carver is back to normal. He’s getting all As in his classes at the Natick School. He was just elected captain of the baseball team. He’s even won a big scholarship for college, if he can keep up his grades. All that foolishness with Rafe Goldberg last semester is over now, and he just needs to be a Carver, work hard, and stay focused.

Except…

There’s Hannah, a gorgeous girl who attracts him and distracts him. There’s his mother, whose quiet unhappiness he’s noticing for the first time. School is harder, the pressure higher, the scholarship almost slipping away. And there’s Rafe, funny, kind, dating someone else…and maybe the real normal that Ben needs.

If you’ve read my blog at all in the last couple of years, then you’ve probably seen me rave about Openly Straight (review), Bill Konigsberg’s amazing, touching, funny, sweet story of a gay teen trying to recreate his life on his own terms. In Openly Straight, we see the world through the eyes of Rafe, as he enters private school determined to shed his previous life as THE gay kid — completely out, giving talks, mother head of PFLAG, etc — and just see what it feels like to be one of the crowd. However, things get complicated when Rafe falls in love with his best friend Ben, who is startled to discover his own feelings for Rafe. In a nutshell, Ben doesn’t know Rafe is gay, so he believes that they’re exploring new ideas and options and feelings together, and feels completely betrayed when he learns what Rafe has been hiding from him. Seriously, this book made me laugh and broke my heart and was just so powerful!

But then we were left hanging… what happened next?

Well, thank you, thank you, thank you to the author for creating this beautiful sequel! Honestly Ben picks up just a few weeks after the events of Openly Straight. In Honestly Ben, Ben himself is the narrator, and we start to see more deeply into Ben’s life and world, and to understand what drives him and what scares him.

Ben grew up on a farm in New Hampshire, where working hard and not embarrassing the family are the values drilled into Ben and his brother from a young age. And when Ben starts to shine as a student, he’s not praised, but warned not to get a big head. For all that, Ben does succeed, and lands a scholarship to Natick, the poor boy among rich peers, striving to fit in and to do well enough to earn a scholarship to college. Ben keeps his head down, and tries to be what everyone wants him to be — a decent guy, a good baseball player, a top student — fitting in, but not one to call attention to himself.

Ben’s feelings for Rafe changed everything he understood about himself. In Honestly Ben, he digs deeper. Is he gay? The label doesn’t seem to fit. Bi? He doesn’t think so. He’s never been attracted to boys before, and his fantasies are generally about girls. Is he, as he puts it, just “gay-for-Rafe”? After the initial anger wears off, Ben and Rafe cautiously inch forward with their friendship. Ben is thrilled to reconnect with Rafe, but it’s a struggle for him to understand what this means. At the same time, he’s also facing pressure academically that threatens his scholarship, and he struggles with learning the truth about a former student whom the school idolizes — for all the wrong reasons, as Ben discovers.

The book’s exploration of labels is deftly handled. One of the Natick boys comes out as gender fluid, which takes much courage on  his part, as well as a lot of explaining — but he’s determined to start living his authentic life. As Ben tries to understand himself in the context of a relationship with Rafe, even well-meaners try to push him into claiming an identity he’s not comfortable with. Why does he need to put a label on what he is? He knows who he loves — why isn’t that sufficient?

Ben’s eyes are finally opened by a girl he briefly dates, who gets him to start to understand what he loses by hiding behind a front that doesn’t reveal the real him:

I’ve been doing some reading. This woman talks about vulnerability, and she says that it’s basically the key to everything. Vulnerability is allowing people to see you exactly as you are, which is really hard, because when you’re vulnerable you can get hurt. Most people armor up with bravado or something, but those people are missing out, because without allowing yourself to be vulnerable, it’s tough to have, like, any emotional experience at all.

The characters are just as wonderful as in the previous book. It’s touching to see Ben’s life through his own eyes and to understand the constant pressure he feels to be what he isn’t. The writing is outstanding, conveying both the challenges and the joys of Ben’s ongoing experiences and really capturing the sense of wonder that comes with sex in the context of love.

Obviously, I highly recommend this book! It’s a wonderful look at the inner lives of teens, and for those who read Openly Straight (which, really, you must do), it’s a terrific reunion with characters we absolutely love and care about. Check it out!

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The details:

Title: Honestly Ben
Author: Bill Konigsberg
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Publication date: March 28, 2017
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Library

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