When the doorbell rings one day at the Sexton household, thirteen year old Lucy answers it herself, grumbling that her household servants never do much around the house. Standing on the doorstep is her mother, dirty, disheveled, and looking wholly not herself. But the woman is not her mother.
It seems that Lucy’s mother has a twin sister who, after being separated from both her parents and her sibling at birth, was sent to an orphanage and then a workhouse. Her whole life, Helen Smythe never knew she was meant to be a society woman, living in rich luxury and with an identical twin sister.
Aunt Helen is quickly adopted into the Sexton household, and lessons begin to change her into the woman she was meant to be. Despite her lack of any formal education, Helen learns very quickly and soon is deemed ready to be presented to Society by Lucy’s parents.
After Aunt Helen’s arrival into Society, life begins to change very much for young Lucy. With her aunt an official member of the household, Lucy is no longer allowed to think of her as a younger sister who needs to be shown the simplest things, or a schoolmate. Still, their relationship is much more open than Lucy’s with her mother, and Lucy is pleased for her aunt’s presence in the Sexton household.
A rousing New Year’s Eve party brings Lucy further into adulthood as she receives her first kiss from the boy next door, Kit, and on New Year’s Day the budding couple goes for a cold stroll in the park. When Lucy arrives home, her house is uncharacteristically silent and she immediately knows something is wrong. Making her way from room to room calling for her parents and aunt, Lucy becomes more and more worried about the silence in the house. When she opens the door to the back parlor, all she sees at first is red.
Mother and Aunt Helen sit in straight-backed chairs, tightly bound to each other. One of their throats is cut.
Lucy’s mother raises her head and looks, terrified and confused, into her daughter’s eyes, and nothing is ever the same again.
Some spoilers within:
When I read, I pointedly do not want to predict anything that’s going to happen with any sort of seriousness. I read books for the experience of sucking myself in to the story, completely losing myself in the amusingly, usually stupid actions of the characters without taking note of anything about the plot other than the plot itself. So, while reading The Twin’s Daughter, I logically should have tossed the book down in frustration, angry that the Sextons were so wildly ignorant about Aunt Helen’s blindingly obvious devious behavior. From the very first page, predictions started flying at me a mile a minute, partially framed by the inside cover, which promises intrigue, deceit, twists, turns, betrayal, jealousy and treacherous secrets.
Perhaps the Sextons’ ignorance was what drew me in, kept me reading; perhaps it was the thought that the book couldn’t be that easy to predict. But I know one thing for sure – Lauren Baratz-Logsted’s writing was the glue that cemented this book as the most refreshingly dramatic, twisty mystery I’ve read in quite some time. And let me tell you now, it did NOT end the way I thought it would, even after several revisions of my initial prediction.
One of the many strengths of Baratz-Logsted’s writing in this book is the subtle intricacy of her descriptions of life as Lucy Sexton. What many young adult readers may consider stupidity or ignorance on the part of Lucy, the more mature audience will see as expertly woven historical details about the sheltered life of a Society child. For example, the night Lucy begins menstruating for the first time; she immediately attributes it to the many other changes occurring with her body. In fact, Lucy’s simple narration of her pubescent changes may be the most honest and accessible I’ve read in a book yet. Not many other historical fiction novels that I’ve encountered discuss menstruation; let alone what one does during such an event without modern, er, accoutrements.
A few more aspects of The Twin’s Daughter I loved and will briefly list in no order, rather than babble on about for ages: the negative-space cover, Lucy’s slow-moving, sarcastically humorous relationship with the dashing camel rider Kit, the way she does not refer to her father as anything but “my father” until his death (after which she calls him Father for the rest of the book), Aunt Martha’s character development, the letters between Lucy and Kit while he is in Egypt, Lucy’s stint on the couch staring out the window after she learns he is injured, the trapdoor and tunnel between their two houses, Lucy’s reaction to overhearing what she does not understand is her father and aunt having sex, and, of course, the denouement.
In short, (though this review, like others of books I’ve just finished and am high off of, is anything but), Lauren Baratz-Logsted is pushing her way toward being one of my favorite young adult authors. (The only other book of hers I have read is Crazy-Beautiful, a rich and gripping romance (I recommend it!).) My library owns a few of her adult titles, and once my to-read stack starts getting a little shorter, I will definitely be picking one up.
“Puberty and a skin-tight yellow costume are not an ideal combination, as Scott (otherwise known as Bright Boy, brave sidekick to the heroic Phantom Justice) is all too uncomfortably aware after a save of a gorgeous woman triggers an unexpected physical response.”—Review of Sidekicks by Jack Ferraiolo in The Bulletin, Vol. 64 (April 2011)
When you’re a homeless eleven year-old named Skip, there isn’t anywhere for you to go, because all the shelters are either for women with children, or for men, which you aren’t. When you’re homeless, a runaway, you never sleep in the same place twice, otherwise someone might be able to figure out where you are and take you back to where you ran away from.
Skip is asleep in a Dumpster when the bombs begin to fall. He wakes up violently, ears ringing, dust and garbage in his mouth, chunks of concrete raining down on top of his exhausted body, Dumpster rolling from the concussion of the blast. Skip doesn’t know which way is up, but he crawls out of the Dumpster and runs. Skip runs and runs, looking for someone or something familiar, and then he sees the grizzled face of his friend Billy.
In the days after the war begins, Billy and Skip rattle around the broken city, searching for food, for shelter. One day, they find a six year-old boy named Max who has lost his mother. Another day, they follow the train tracks out of the city to Dreamland, an abandoned amusement park that becomes their home. As soldiers begin to move in, Skip, Billy and Max find it harder to hide themselves, especially with the addition of the dancing teenage mother Tia and her infant daughter Sixpence to their ragtag gang.
It is Billy’s knowledge, Max’s unfettered optimism and hope, Skip’s determination, Tia’s beauty, and Sixpence’s innocence that brings them together. In A Small Free Kiss in the Dark, Glenda Millard has created a fragile world with delicate characters; a world that, as you read into it more, unconsciously pulls your blanket tighter around you and curls your legs up close to your body. This book is not one to read lightly, nor is it one to miss.
Read-Alikes: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi Smack by Melvin Burgess Green Angel by Alice Hoffman Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden The Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien Punkzilla by Adam Rapp How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff No and Me by Delphine de Vigan
“Then I saw a huge stained-glass window. There was no building, not even a wall, just the window with a fire burning somewhere behind it. It was a miracle. I thought that window might be the last beautiful thing left on earth, so I scrambled over the rubble and stood in front of it. The crimson and the amber fell across my bleeding arms. The man in the glass had blood on his head and his hands and on his pure white robe. He had a long beard and for a second I thought he might be a terrorist but thenI noticed he was holding a lamb and a curly stick, not a gun.”—A Small Free Kiss in the Dark by Glenda Millard
“I didn’t think we’d be allowed inside [the library] but Billy said the library belonged to the people and we were the people. He said even if you didn’t have a coat you could still go there, as long as your hands were clean. That was in the rules, he said, and he could prove it because someone wrote them down when they first built the library.”—A Small Free Kiss in the Dark by Glenda Millard
“The black woman looked up at me. I couldn’t tell what color her eyes were. They were wet and dark and shining, like pools of deep, still water. For a second I thought I could see pictures in them, like I was looking right inside her to where her memories were. She smiled, and I wondered if she knew what I’d seen or if she could see the picture I kept hidden inside myself. Then she went back to her drawing.”—A Small Free Kiss in the Dark by Glenda Millard
“If you take a book with you on a journey, an odd thing happens: The book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while you were reading it…yes, books are like flypaper— memories cling to the printed page better than anything else.”—Cornelia Funke, Inkheart (via libraryland)
Once upon a time, my best friend from college said, “This story’s about this woman who can jump into books. She fights book crime, and in one of the books in the series, she escapes this battle by jumping into a clothing label, and then gets stuck in a blank white room with a man and a washing machine manual until she can figure out where to jump.”
I don’t know what it was about that description, which wasn’t even that accurate, but the second his Gmail chat message popped up, I got myself to the college library website and submitted an Interlibrary Loan request for all five of the Fforde books out at the time. Within a month, I’d finished them all, fallen behind in my classes, and was attempting to extend my due dates so that I could read the books all over again.
The first of the series, The Eyre Affair, is about an alternate 1985 real-world Literary Detective named Thursday Next who accidentally learns of the existence of a Book World . After apprehending the thief of the original Dickens manuscript Martin Chuzzlewit, she discovers
"All this," explained Hamlet, waving his hands at the fairly innocuous Swindon street, "would take millions of words to describe correctly!"
"You’re right. It would. That’s the magic of the book imagino-transference technology," I told him. "A few dozen words conjure up an entire picture. But in all honesty the reader does most of the work."
"The reader? What’s it got to do with him?"
"Well, each interpretation of an event, setting, or character, is unique to each of those who read it because they clothe the author’s description with the memory of their own experiences. Every character they read is actually a complex amalgam of people that they’ve met, read, or seen before - far more real than it can ever be just from the text on the page. Because every reader’s experiences are different, each book is unique for each reader."
"So," replied the Dane, thinking hard, "what you’re saying is that the more complex and apparently contradictory the character, the greater the possible interpretations?"
"Yes. In fact, I’d argue that every time a book is read by the same person it is different again - because the reader’s experiences have changed, or he is in a different frame of mind."
"Well, that explains why no one can figure me out."
If only Tumblr was less of a grumble-cat when it comes to navigability. I am still at a half-way loss as to how everythingstuff works on the site. But! No worries about the email -- it's public, and hopefully, the "at" and "dot" will protect the address from the cauldron that is spam-broth, just waiting for a canary drumstick to fall into its open maw.
I am thrilled to read your reply. And we might yet need your Eyre Affair encouragement. Me, I'm loving the concepts and the overall world structure of the story, but little snags in the prose is progressively grinding my will to live down. I need light at the far end of the bird cage. I need LIGHT!
I had a similar thing happen when I picked up the first of Butcher's Dresden books at TheOtherCanary's urging. She tells me to skip to the second or fifth, because they're great(er), but I am a stubborn bit of flutter-fluff when it comes to reading in order. Chirp.
I also must read in order, no matter what - which will probably kill me with the Pratchetts AND the Dresden Files - both series I have to read, according to The Boy.
I, er… have 900 words written on The Eyre Affair & the Thursday series so far. And I’m not sure how done I am. Amusing, considering an hour ago I wasn’t sure if I’d get to write the review before the end of the weekend. My fingers kinda just went nuts. I’m rather excited to join the Canary team! I must think of a thing for my yellow feathered fluffball - I am a huge fan of the velociraptor head (what a clever girl).
Started writing a book review of The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. Am 550 words in, and I haven’t even summarized it yet or gotten to the really good reviewy bits. Oooooh, boy this is going to be a tome.
In 1994, a book came out that changed my life. No, it wasn’t one of the novels that made its way to the fiction best seller’s list of the year. (Which consists almost entirely of Grisham, King, and Steele—some things never change.) Nor was it the nonfiction behemoth of the year: “Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus.” (Though it might have been if I weren’t 8 years old at the time.) No, in 1994, there was a single book that captured my tiny, feathered heart, soul, and mind for years and years to come: Into the Land of the Unicorns by Bruce Coville.
A few days back, I was hunting for a new audiobook. Through random hyperlinking via Audible, I stumbled upon something glorious:
Yesterday, my dear friend Natalie (@avoidingreality) asked me to recommend some new books to her. Rather than tweet them all in a huge giant series of tweets no one but her & our followers-in-common would see, I decided to post it here, for the Internet.
Books Natalie has loved in the past: Matched by Ally Condie Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins …. basically, the girl loves her dystopia.
My new recommendations: The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan - historical fiction zombie dystopia Little Brother by Cory Doctorow - present day dystopia The Maze Runner by James Dashner - second most Hunger Games-y on this list White Cat by Holly Black - present day magic/curse/mob fun Uglies by Scott Westerfeld - obsession with perfection Peeps by Scott Westerfeld - different series than Uglies Feed by M.T. Anderson - long live the internet City of Bones by Cassandra Clare - segueing into the prequel series, The Clockwork Angel The Compound by S.A. Bodeen - what happens when a safe bunker goes wrong The Sky Inside by Claire B. Dunkle - i never ended up finishing this because i personally didn’t like it… but i’ll recommend it anyway. Girl in the Arena by Lisa Haines - off this list, this is the most Hunger Games-y Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve - cities EAT OTHER CITIES LIKE THEY ARE SNACKS A Small Free Kiss in the Dark by Glenda Millard
A few recommendations of books I haven’t gotten to yet: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi Across the Universe by Beth Ravis Incarceron by Catherine Fisher Gone by Michael Grant Num8ers by Rachel Ward Inside Out by Maria Snyder The Tiger’s Curse by Colleen Houck Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly Witch & Wizard by James Patterson Candor by Pam Bachorz Genesis by Bernard Beckett
Two comment-generated recommendations: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Oddly enough, there’s been a small influx of Brothers Grimm fiction in the youth department. I mentioned this on Twitter the other day, to a dear friend (@filmaslife) and decided to compile a list for her here rather than in several tweets.
A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman Dust City by Robert Paul Weston The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley (of course, you know this series.) Into the Woods by Lyn Gardner (a little older) Ash by Melinda Lo Cloaked by Alex Flinn The Nursery Crime series by Jasper Fforde (and what a good girl you are, you’re already reading one:) The Thirteen Treasures by Michelle Harrison (sorta)
Maybe I’m thinking there’ve been a zillion more because I’ve been seeing a lot of Sisters Grimm books flying off our shelves. Still, though. /shrug
After she is orphaned, young Emily makes the best of her situation, writing to her favorite aunt for a place to live.
Unfortunately, the Catchum Child Catching Services have other plans - Emily must live with her closest blood relative, something Aunt Hilda is not. Instead, she is supposed to live with her money-grubbing, mustached Uncle Victor. What in the flippin’ flapjacks is Emily supposed to do?!?!
In this futuristic post-fairies fairy tale world, companies mine fairy dust residue in the earth from long-ago magic to sell as minor first aid remedies. Henry seems to be the only citizen unwilling to use this somewhat makeshift fairy dust, as his mother was killed in an accident involving a truckload of the stuff.
Our main character Henry’s father is the Big Bad Wolf, and when Henry has one little teenage slipup (a broken window), he is sent to the St. Remus Home for Wayward Youth (aka wayward animalians & one hominid, Henry’s best friend Jack).
Through Jack’s nimble fingers, Henry comes into possession of a series of letters written to him by his incarcerated father. The letters contain secrets – important secrets that could exonerate his father and bring them back together. All Henry has to do is get in with a guy named Skinner, by competing for a job in a dust drug-fueled and vicious race; then gather proof of his father’s semi-innocence. But in working for Skinner is no walk in the park; Henry now is a runner of nixiedust, a much more powerful and dangerous version of corporately mined fairy dust
BEGIN SPOILERS It is obvious from the get-go that the fairy dust is going to be some sort of incredible addictive drug that will end up controlling all citizens in some way; the fairies haven’t left because of hominid behavior, they’ve been enslaved.
Though Weston’s descriptive presentation of this odd fairy tale world are eloquent and simple, he neglects at the start to explain basic things like how the characters, wolves, manage to wear clothes and operate digital cameras. Do they stand like hominids? Maybe it’s just me, but when you mention that your main character is a wolf, but then you mention he’s wearing pants and another wolf took a photograph of him… I start to wonder. Weston does explain the evolutionary changes in the animal species - but for me, it came too late.
Weston’s attempt to throw these many fairy tale creatures (goblins, talking animals, elves) together fits with the world he has created, but other than an initial description of the character (Jack’s girlfriend, for example, has moon-colored skin & pointed ears) there is no obvious discernment between species. The reader had better keep track of what is going on with the species of each character, no matter how small, because once Weston tells you once, he’s not going to repeat himself again, at least on this front. For the majority of the story, though, the species doesn’t matter.
Many well known fairy tale characters are featured in the story, such as Detective White, who has a lingering cough due to being raised by miners, and Cindy Rella, a secretary type for St. Remus’, who has a fancy pair of heels. Some are blatant, like Ms. Rella, some subtle – Detective White – and others much less obvious – Jack, for example, is a kleptomaniac who escapes from St. Remus’ via plant.
Similar Titles: Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman Into the Woods by Lyn Gardner Virals by Kathy Reichs The 10th Kingdom by Kathryn Wesley His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman Lockdown: Escape from Furnace by Alexander Gordon Smith The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor
“There’s the good, which they always talk about, and then there’s the bad." He pauses a moment before explaining. "Ever’body figures the old-time stuff is all milk and honey. Nobody looks in the mirror an’ says, ‘Gee, I think I was destined for something far worse than this.’ No, sir, they all think, ‘I was destined for something better.’ But some folks - maybe Jerry his old self, and maybe some big bad wolves like you - maybe folks like us were never destined for something like that. Maybe our destinies have always been in that other category. You ever consider that?”—Dust City by Robert Paul Weston
Alley (short for Algonquin) Rhodes lives in a world of post-humans, but that doesn’t matter to her. She’s the meanest girl in the Vicious Circle, her group of student newspaper reporter friends, and when she is asked to review one of her high school’s bands, her reputation as a mean girl is definitely not at stake. The band is absolutely horrible, right down to their name, the Sorry Marios, and Alley lets the band have it in her review. She sends it off mere minutes after the Marios come onstage, knowing there’s no way they could possibly outperform what she’s written. Then a guest singer ambles onstage, and begins throatily singing a Cole Porter song. Alley’s favorite. Doug, the singer, launches from Porter into a Leonard Cohen ballad, unwittingly ensuring that Alley is absolutely, positively head over heels in love with him. Waiting for the catch? Doug is a zombie. After a discussion with her beloved, Alley soon realizes that she doesn’t care whether Doug is a zombie or if he’s got no limbs and a colostomy bag – because she loves him no matter what. Soon, a la Bella Swan, Alley begins to ponder becoming a zombie herself so she can stay with her man forever. If dating a zombie has perks she didn’t even know she wanted, like instant popularity, a shot at winning prom king/queen, what is keeping her from becoming a zombie herself? First of all, there are her parents. They don’t want their daughter to throw her life away – though she thinks of it as the complete opposite of that, since she will be gaining immortality. In an argument with her parents, Alley likens her father’s conversion to Judaism to her desire to “convert to being dead” for Doug. Right. Secondly, there’s her mixed-relationships-hating vampire guidance counselor, who offers her the opportunity to become a vampire instead (Bella, be still your beating heart!) As Alley’s friend Peter says, “When your guidance counselor tells you to die, you really have problems!” Third, Doug hasn’t texted her back in almost 24 hours, and why die for someone who can’t even reply to a text in a timely manner? Fourth, a pamphlet from the nurse’s office reminds Alley that “the surgeon general has repeatedly warned against dying for any reason” – especially love.
Readalikes: Generation Dead Zombie Blondes Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist The Ghost and the Goth Dead is the New Black. Funnier, wittier, better written & more sophisticated than Twilight.
Jonathan Joseph Tully, a retired Search and Rescue dog, is hired by worried mother Millicent to find her two missing chicks, Poppy and Sweetie – but this SAR mission is not as simple as it seems.
The Trouble with Chickens is the kind of book that will make you stop and read aloud hilarious sentences to anyone nearby. Cronin has taken a very simple missing-child mystery and turned it into something much denser. Younger readers may not fully appreciate all the humor of J.J.’s detective style, but will certainly find themselves immersed in the mystery from the first page.
My only issue with the book was the change in narrator, indicated only by the shape beneath the chapter number – this will be easy for young readers to miss, and they may become confused.
Fans of J.J. may also love my two favorite Bill Wallace dog books - Watchdog and the Coyotes & Snot Stew.
As the author, I went into the casting process with a certain degree of trepidation. Believing your heroine can make the leap from the relative safety of the page to the flesh and bones reality of the screen is something of a creative act of faith. But after watching dozens of auditions by a group of very fine young actresses, I felt there was only one who truly captured the character I wrote in the book. And I’m thrilled to say that Jennifer Lawrence has accepted the role.
In her remarkable audition piece, I watched Jennifer embody every essential quality necessary to play Katniss. I saw a girl who has the potential rage to send an arrow into the Gamemakers and the protectiveness to make Rue her ally. Who has conquered both Peeta and Gale’s hearts even though she’s done her best to wall herself off emotionally from anything that would lead to romance. Most of all, I believed that this was a girl who could hold out that handful of berries and incite the beaten down districts of Panem to rebel. I think that was the essential question for me. Could she believably inspire a rebellion? Did she project the strength, defiance and intellect you would need to follow her into certain war? For me, she did.
Jennifer’s just an incredible actress. So powerful, vulnerable, beautiful, unforgiving and brave. I never thought we’d find somebody this amazing for the role. And I can’t wait for everyone to see her play it.
Thank you all for sharing in this journey and may the odds be ever in your favor! Love,
“I have no feelings of guilt regarding the books I have not read and perhaps will never read; I know that my books have unlimited patience. They will wait for me till the end of my days.”— Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night (via excessivebookshelf)
“Date a girl who reads. Date a girl who spends her money on books instead of clothes. She has problems with closet space because she has too many books. Date a girl who has a list of books she wants to read, who has had a library card since she was twelve. Find a girl who reads. You’ll know that she does because she will always have an unread book in her bag.She’s the one lovingly looking over the shelves in the bookstore, the one who quietly cries out when she finds the book she wants. You see the weird chick sniffing the pages of an old book in a second hand book shop? That’s the reader. They can never resist smelling the pages, especially when they are yellow. She’s the girl reading while waiting in that coffee shop down the street. If you take a peek at her mug, the non-dairy creamer is floating on top because she’s kind of engrossed already. Lost in a world of the author’s making. Sit down. She might give you a glare, as most girls who read do not like to be interrupted. Ask her if she likes the book. Buy her another cup of coffee. Let her know what you really think of Murakami. See if she got through the first chapter of Fellowship. Understand that if she says she understood James Joyce’s Ulysses she’s just saying that to sound intelligent. Ask her if she loves Alice or she would like to be Alice. It’s easy to date a girl who reads. Give her books for her birthday, for Christmas and for anniversaries. Give her the gift of words, in poetry, in song. Give her Neruda, Pound, Sexton, Cummings. Let her know that you understand that words are love. Understand that she knows the difference between books and reality but by god, she’s going to try to make her life a little like her favorite book. It will never be your fault if she does. She has to give it a shot somehow. Lie to her. If she understands syntax, she will understand your need to lie. Behind words are other things: motivation, value, nuance, dialogue. It will not be the end of the world. Fail her. Because a girl who reads knows that failure always leads up to the climax. Because girls who understand that all things will come to end. That you can always write a sequel. That you can begin again and again and still be the hero. That life is meant to have a villain or two. Why be frightened of everything that you are not? Girls who read understand that people, like characters, develop. Except in the Twilightseries. If you find a girl who reads, keep her close. When you find her up at 2 AM clutching a book to her chest and weeping, make her a cup of tea and hold her. You may lose her for a couple of hours but she will always come back to you. She’ll talk as if the characters in the book are real, because for a while, they always are. You will propose on a hot air balloon. Or during a rock concert. Or very casually next time she’s sick. Over Skype. You will smile so hard you will wonder why your heart hasn’t burst and bled out all over your chest yet. You will write the story of your lives, have kids with strange names and even stranger tastes. She will introduce your children to the Cat in the Hat and Aslan, maybe in the same day. You will walk the winters of your old age together and she will recite Keats under her breath while you shake the snow off your boots. Date a girl who reads because you deserve it. You deserve a girl who can give you the most colorful life imaginable. If you can only give her monotony, and stale hours and half-baked proposals, then you’re better off alone. If you want the world and the worlds beyond it, date a girl who reads. Or better yet, date a girl who writes.”
Remember when you watched Bambi for the first time and you got to the part where Bambi’s mom dies? And the sweet movie about a family of deer turns into a horror flick? ‘What the heck was that?’ you thought. And in that second you realized that if Bambi’s mom can die, so can everybody else. How They Croaked is like reliving Bambi’s mom’s death over and over again. Except it’s worse because it’s the blood, sweat, and guts of real people.
- How They Croaked: the Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg
“ ‘Ten million dollars?’ Jackson whispered in astonishment.
‘I… I guess so,’ said Emily. She was not sure just how much money that would be. One million, she guessed, was a lot of thousands, and ten million… She wondered if she could squeeze it all into the carpetbag.”—Emily’s Fortune by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
“I read in National Geographic that there are more people alive now than have died in all of human history. In other words, if everyone wanted to play Hamlet at once, they couldn’t, because there aren’t enough skulls!”—Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close- Jonathan Safran Foer (via hi-its-jess)
Thirteen year old Ben Tomlin has made an involuntary sacrifice, in the hopes that his parents, scientists, will be able to teach American Sign Language to a chimpanzee. The experiment begins with the intention of completely humanizing the chimpanzee, aptly named Zan (short for Tarzan) – Ben is told that Zan is to be his younger brother; his mother even breastfeeds the ape. The Tomlin’s treatment of Zan is to be so purely as a child that “he wasn’t allowed to be a chimp. He had to be a human.” (48)
Despite Ben’s initial dislike of the ape, it rapidly becomes apparent that Zan and Ben have the most effect on each other. Ben’s father is too busy designing the experiment to have anything to do with connecting with his chimp son, and though Zan’s mother initially treated the chimp as her own son, she begins to distance herself; her psychology background shining through much more than her role as surrogate mother. Ben is the one who bonds emotionally with Zan, and vice versa; this is shown to have success on Zan’s language acquisition as Ben is the one who initially begins to sign words to the ape, and is the recipient of Zan’s first sign (hug).
[Spoilers begin here.] Soon the Tomlins realize that they do not have the manpower to care for Zan as he really needs, and hire a team of students to work with him during the daytime. Peter, a disheveled hippie, is the most focused and dedicated of any of these teachers, and after Ben helps him cheat through the interview, the two become friends. Dr. Tomlin begins to notice the time Ben has been putting in with his chimp brother, and begins to pay him for the work he does, making Ben an official part of the Project Zan team. Despite this new ‘job,’ however, Ben always thinks of Zan as his little brother, and his payment as more of a babysitter’s fee. Ben connects with his brother so easily that he even writes two essays for school using only the words that Zan has been taught, much to the chagrin of his father and teachers.
As the experiment goes on, Zan’s language acquisition rate steadily increases, his success apparent to everyone but Dr. Tomlin, even when Zan creates his own words, combining signs he already knows to identify foreign objects. The doctor, who still views spending any time with Zan as being “in the trenches,” grows increasingly frustrated with Zan’s lingering animal behaviors (mostly exhibited in tantrums) and brings a new element to the training sessions – the learning chair. The chair is cold steel, with restraints attached for use when Zan’s behavior is “undesirable.” Ben doesn’t realize how torturous the char is for Zan until one day when he is home sick from school, and rescues his brother from the restraints. At this point it has become unavoidably obvious to Ben that his father never had the intention of treating Zan as a human.
Four days after Christmas, the news comes – Project Zan is officially being shut down, and Ben’s little brother has been sold to another lab, and Ben will probably never see him again.
[Spoilers end.] Ethical questions are raised all throughout this gripping novel, forcing readers to question animal rights along with the characters in the novel. As Ben realizes, “I guess I’d always assumed humans were more important than animals.”
Other Notes: I’m really glad this book started with the chimpanzee being ripped apart from his own mother, even if it was in a lab setting. It took me a really long time to realize that this book took place in 1973 – I thought at first that Oppel was just ignoring other experiments of this kind. Also, I seem to recall Ben complaining that not only will he have to move to a new town and school, he will have to learn ASL – but then suddenly he magically knows ASL without spending any time in the novel telling us he’s learned it. Despite growing up poor, Dr. Tomlin is very snobby and uppity in his new lifestyle as rich-doctor-with-exciting-new-ethically-questionable-experiment – it’s rather annoying, but foreshadows the evolution of his character quite well. I really appreciated Ben’s difficulties in school – the story would have been much more difficult for me to read had Ben been a perfect character that fit in perfectly at his private school, getting amazing grades, all the girls, etc. His ‘disappointing’ performance in school also provides basis for more dissonance with his father, and comparison of himself to Zan. Pages 221-222 broke my heart.
Possibly questionable content: Ben’s first new friend after the move to British Columbia shows him a storage freezer full of pornography magazines; also his father’s gun rack. Ben’s mother breastfeeds the chimpanzee as an infant. Ben has a crush on Jennifer Godwin, his father’s boss’ daughter – and rather than think about how beautiful she is, he focuses on her breasts and her legs – the crush is written very deliberately in this way; I’ve never seen that style of writing in a novel before. Ben’s parents frequently give him wine with dinner, and Ben drinks beer at a beach party. Also, copious making out, one session of above-the-shirt groping.