Monday, 24 February 2014

"Whisper" by Chris Struyk-Bonn (book review)

I received a copy of Whisper from in exchange for an honest review.  The book was an advance copy, it will be available in Canada in April 2014.

Whisper is the first novel from Chris Struyk-Bonn, and hopefully not her last.  The dystopian setting of Whisper is certainly meant to be of our own society, and is not a terribly distant future either.  We find the titular character living in the woods with other rejects, individuals who have been cast off from a society which shuns those with any physical defect.  Whisper’s crude but happy life in the wilderness is abruptly ended when she is reclaimed by the father who rejected her, and brought to his house to work as a servant.  As Whisper is traded from hand to hand into a life in the highly polluted cities, she retains her dignity and independence and never surrenders the hope of returning to her simple camp and the only family she has ever known.

I am a very picky consumer of dystopian fiction, as it is one of my favorite genres.  But I thoroughly enjoyed reading Whisper.  While some of the ideas are not completely original (very much reminded me of The Chrysalids), the characters are what really make the story.  Whisper herself is a highly interesting and endearing character, and the supporting casts of characters have strong personalities as well.  Character development is really what made this book for me, as the reader can see how various experiences and maltreatment impact Whisper and shape her personality and future encounters.  There are a few odd moments of inconsistency, but they are not enough to detract from the overall growth of the characters.

My only complaint about Whisper are the few odd places where the story goes off on a tangent that seems to be completely unnecessary to advancing the plot.  One example of this is a scene where Whisper is rescued during transport to the city, but then quickly returns to her captor.  I found this scene to be contrary to Whisper’s established character, and almost completely unnecessary.  The explanation of trying to protect her family of cast-offs just doesn’t work in this scenario, as she is being sent by her biological father into a life of begging in the streets.  Being fully aware of the terrible destiny that awaited her, I would have thought Whisper would take her chances in the familiarity of the woods and try to return to her kin, rather than going back to her dastardly, creepy uncle who was transporting her.  The whole scene just didn’t fit.  There is a later scene where Whisper is briefly jailed in the city, which I also felt could have been omitted without damaging the storyline.

Despite a few inconsistent and unnecessary scenes, overall I was very impressed with Chris Struyk-Bonn’s inaugural effort.  The story is interesting, moves at an appropriate pace, and the characters are fascinating and multifaceted.  I look forward to reading more by Chris Struyk-Bonn, and recommend Whisper to anyone who enjoys dystopian fiction.  

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Feeling all the feels - Bridge to Terabithia (book review)

Oh, the feels.

Book club selected "banned books" this month, and I thought it would be a natural fit to pick a children's book, because so many of the books that are challenged every year are for kids/YA.  This is probably because people are worried about their fragile little minds being unable to handle basic life concepts. Like swearing.  Or people having same-sex parents.  Or death.  Or other reminders of reality.

Now some of this concern is justifiable.  Some concepts are confusing for children.  My 5-year-old niece, who has experienced death in the passing of her great-grandmother, is a prime example of this.  Her understanding of death as it stands right now is that she doesn't want people to die because then there will be skeletons.  She doesn't understand it in terms of the cessation of life or that she will miss the person if they are gone, she just REALLY dislikes the idea of there being any skeletons in her vicinity.  But when children have a misunderstanding like this, it is an opportunity to teach them at their level about the concept, rather than pretend the concept does not exist.

Really, it is this whole "at their level" thing that throws people off and is usually at the source of the debate on most challenged books.  It's the same with other topics like suicide, drug use, drinking, sex, etc.

And this leads me to the banned book which I read for this month, The Bridge to Terbithia.

The main reason that this work has been banned in the past is because it features death as a predominant part of the story.  Which in my own personal (professional librarian) opinion, is a dumbass reason to ban a book.  Apparently people have also taken exception to the book because the main character Jess uses the word "lord" outside of prayer, and that the book portrays secular humanism in a potentially positive light. 

(Excuse me while I go clutch my pearls.)

Clearly, most of these objections to Bridge to Terabithia are products of the time from which it was written, in 1977.  More than forty years later our sensibilities have changed... or so we would like to think, but this book was among the most challenged in America between 1990-2000.  I couldn't find a stat on it since then, but I'm sure calls for censorship didn't stop just because they 90's did.

Now I've been referred to as a crazy-left-wing-hippie-plant-eater more than once in my life (actually), but I'm going to go ahead and say that these objections are pretty much ridiculous.  But really, most objections and challenges to books ARE ridiculous.  It always comes down to fear and misunderstanding of a different person or group (i.e.- foreign people, people of other religions, people with a different lifestyle, teenagers, etc.) 

Honestly I found Bridge to Terabithia to be pretty tame.  Yes there is a death (I'm not going to say who and ruin the book, although if you read the back cover it's pretty obvious), but I think there is more controversy to be had with the book's quiet subversiveness (a la Catcher in the Rye, only much less whiny).  Terabithia is really all about building the world you want to live in when you don't want to live in the world that authorities have built for you.  Which is also exactly what makes this a wonderful book.  If like me you somehow escaped your childhood without having read this one, I highly recommend it as a fast read with a real emotional punch.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Something that needs to be said

I'm going to write today about a subject I have not written about before.  And unlike pretty much every other blog entry I've written, this one is serious.  I don't usually like to blog about serious things (because I like the blog to be a happy place), but this is something that I felt the time is right to address, because I am simultaneously fed up and at the same time quite elated, as you will see...

So here goes.

Last night I experienced a moment of pure happiness and joy as my 29-year-old husband applied to go to school in the fall, to become an educational assistant.  It was a moment years in the making.  And I have to say something about everything that has lead up to this point.

As many of you might be aware, my husband has a mental illness.  This is not a secret and neither he nor I have ever been quiet or uptight about it.  These things belong in the open.  When we keep them a secret we show we are ashamed and that we have been made to feel guilty about them.  We do not shy away from admitting that we have diabetes, or epilepsy, or other LIFELONG illnesses, so why should we shy away from discussing mental illness?

But why do so many people shy away from discussing it?  Because of the JUDGEMENT.  Because if we fall sick with cancer, people gather around us and lift us up.  They bring us food and help us with chores and take care of the kids, and do everything they can to help us while we are ill.  But admit that you have a mental illness... admit that you have schizophrenia, that you have a borderline personality disorder, that you have an issue with anxiety... and people do not gather around to help.  THEY RUN.  AND THEY JUDGE.

This is because people seem to think (for some god unknown reason) that mental illness is something you can control.  That it is a simple manner of choosing to overcome it. And because you can't control it, you are therefore not really trying very hard to get better, and not worthy of being helped.  All compassion, understanding, and care for people with mental illness goes out the window because of this ignorance to one of the most common illnesses.

Here are the things I am sick of hearing people say to me about my husband:
  • Why can't he just be happy?
  • Why doesn't he just get a full-time job?
  • Why doesn't he just try harder?
  • Why can't he do ___?
so if you are one of the people saying these things, please stop, because he is doing his best with the condition he has.  As the person who lives with him, I am more than aware of his various shortcomings in the sight of his friends, family and of himself.  He does not need to be reminded (nor does his main support and caregiver person, ME) of what he is not able to do.  This only feeds his illness.  An illness which tells him constantly that he is incapable, worthless, and not even worthy of living.  Certainly he doesn't need this reinforced by anyone else.  You wouldn't remove the mobility supports of someone with cerebral palsy, why would you remove the very tenuous lines of hope which hold up someone with mental illness?

I am witness to the worst of it.  And I am lucky enough to see him at his very best. I am also the one who gets the privilege of seeing that he is improving everyday.  When you say "why can't you just _____", what you are really saying is "I have no patience for your illness, you need to get better right now or I can't accept you as a person". 

But I am proud to say how well he is doing, and that there is so much that he can do, in the midst of what everyone says he can't do.  He is able to get out of bed nearly every single day.  He takes his medications diligently and without being told.  He attends therapy twice a week.  He is focusing on healthy eating in an attempt to lose weight and be healthier.  He keeps looking for a job, despite repeated rejections.  He makes friends and socializes with them.  And most importantly, he makes plans for his future.  He has come light-years in terms of progress with his condition over the last four years,  I would like it very much if everyone could choose to see that in place of seeing only the negative.  He will never be perfect, and he will quite likely never even be what we call "normal", and his condition will likely last for the rest of his life.  But he is thriving despite of it. 

And if he can do that, with all that's working against him, I think you are capable of some understanding.