That’s Not What Happened by Kody Keplinger

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That’s Not What Happened by Kody Keplinger

329 pages

5/5 stars

Synopsis:
It’s been three years since the Virgil County High School Massacre. Three years since my best friend, Sarah, was killed in a bathroom stall during the mass shooting. Everyone knows Sarah’s story–that she died proclaiming her faith. 

But it’s not true. 

I know because I was with her when she died. I didn’t say anything then, and people got hurt because of it. Now Sarah’s parents are publishing a book about her, so this might be my last chance to set the record straight . . . but I’m not the only survivor with a story to tell about what did–and didn’t–happen that day. 

Except Sarah’s martyrdom is important to a lot of people, people who don’t take kindly to what I’m trying to do. And the more I learn, the less certain I am about what’s right. I don’t know what will be worse: the guilt of staying silent or the consequences of speaking up . . . 


I struggled on whether to give That’s Not What Happened 4 or 5 stars. Despite the tragedy that centers around the lives of several teens who survived their school shooting, it felt like a great book, especially one geared towards young adults. I had to refer back to my own review policy because I just wasn’t sure of what to do with a book that didn’t excite me and resonate with me explicitly in a positive or personal way, but still left me thinking well after I put it down. Even now, I’m going back and forth changing the star rating.

If you’ve read the synopsis, you can imagine all of the trigger warnings that come with the book. Despite that, it really pulls you in, but not too deeply…and that seems to work. You get to know Lee, the situation, and some of the lives involved in the shooting bit by bit. While the story is fiction, it sharply drew to mind the story of Cassie Bernall/Valeen Schnurr from the Columbine shooting. The story that Cassie was asked if she believed in God, that she said yes, and that she was killed because of it. But it turns out, but it turns out that it was really another student in the library, Valeen Schnurr, who was questioned and answered. Despite the truth, Cassie’s mother released a book about her daughter’s martyrdom. It made me wonder if any young adults who read That’s Not What Happened would know about that. Even that I knew the story and the “controversy” of the truth, I still enjoyed Keplinger’s book.

That said, That’s Not What Happened brings a multitude of layers to think about. It shows that lies can be started accidentally. How the media only cares about a situation to get the best story, angle, or drama from it. How misconceptions can be fanned and worked into truths. How letting people believe in a lie can cause more harm even if it is hard to correct that lie and tell the truth. Time does not negate the truth, but at the same time, the truth can hurt others. If someone waits for any reason to speak up, that doesn’t mean that it is any less important or serious just because time has passed. It still affects them and they live and think about it all the time–just because others have moved on with a lie, doesn’t mean that the person who knows the truth has.

I also felt that it accurately portrayed the layers and complexity of trauma. We see how different people have reacted to the events that have happened. Some seem fine, like they have moved on, but on the inside, they are still hurting. They just don’t show it. Others have PTSD and sounds, touches, and sudden movements can trigger panic attacks and anxiety. We see victims ambushed, harassed, and intimidated by people they thought they knew and could trust. We see the brittle bonds that the survivors have tested and even broken. We see how anxiety can make you spiral in your thoughts, be aggressive and mean to the people that care about you the most, and how self harm isn’t always physical.

So as I sit here writing, I think I have made up my mind on how many stars to give this piece, knowing full well how arbitrary the system is. That’s Not What Happened is a solid piece of work that explores deep issues and tough events that probably are on the minds of teenagers more often now, without being preachy, patronizing, or wrapping them up with a big “and everyone lived happily ever after” bow. It shows how people can react to trauma–as well as the darker questions that no one wants to ask; why are the deeds of the dead forgotten just because they have died? Why do we allow only the good aspects of dead people to be talked about? To this, it does a good job of showing how individual “truths” can contradict and clash And that they are just that: individual truths. That people don’t like to hear things that alter what they believe. Ultimately, that truth and belief are more interchangeable to some than others.

Pick up That’s Not What Happened if you are looking for a solid story that leaves you thinking long after you have put it down.

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Review: In the House in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt

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In the House in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt

218 pages

4/5 stars

Synopsis:

“Once upon a time there was and there wasn’t a woman who went to the woods.”

In this horror story set in colonial New England, a law-abiding Puritan woman goes missing. Or perhaps she has fled or abandoned her family. Or perhaps she’s been kidnapped, and set loose to wander in the dense woods of the north. Alone and possibly lost, she meets another woman in the forest. Then everything changes.

On a journey that will take her through dark woods full of almost-human wolves, through a deep well wet with the screams of men, and on a living ship made of human bones, our heroine may find that the evil she flees has been inside her all along. The eerie, disturbing story of one of our perennial fascinations–witchcraft in colonial America–In the House in the Dark of the Woods is a novel of psychological horror and suspense told in Laird Hunt’s characteristically lyrical prose style. It is the story of a bewitching, a betrayal, a master huntress and her quarry. It is a story of anger, of evil, of hatred and of redemption. It is the story of a haunting, a story that makes up the bedrock of American mythology, but told in a vivid way you will never forget.


In the House in the Dark of the Woods is a strange and trippy tale full of dark fairy tale elements. There is a wriggling undercurrent that leaves you unsettled and glued to the pages and reminds me quite a bit of The Witch in that regard.

Goody and Eliza speak in a convincing colonial New England dialect, which lends itself to the fairy tale-like tone the book has. There are strange people and situations that are reminiscent of a twisted Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as well. Dancing pigs, a wooden adder stone, and a flying boat made of bones are fantastical elements that are downplayed in a magical realism kind of way.

I do think that In the House in the Dark of the Woods would have been better by ending after chapter 24. The extra chapters did not add much, especially the epilogue. To take the time to explain and add details that were not helpful to the story could have been used to instead explain some of the twist, rules, or origin of the game.

All in all I think this was a fairly solid story even as it delves into a vague-yet-disturbing madness. I can see how some people had a hard time with it, but as I’m a big fan of warped tales (The Hike is one of my favorite books), I followed along quite well.

On review writing and reviewing my writing

I have always been the kind of person that, if I find some long lost piece of my writing–whether a journal entry or random novel layout–that if I found it embarrassing or childish or even too personal, I would rip it out of the notebook and throw it away.

With blogs, it’s a little harder to do that.

These are, whether anyone is looking or not, published pieces. To throw them away, even with the meager 70-odd posts that I have now, would cause me to:

  • go through and critique each post
  • determine if I want to re-edit it
  • try to justify the point in re-editing something from over a year ago
  • if I do re-edit, is it linked to any other posts, such as part of a series I have read?
  • if I fail justifying that to myself, I have to decide if I should just delete them
  • if I delete them, what was the point in writing them to begin with?
  • how will I show myself that I have made progress and stuck to a very blasé writing/reading/reviewing plan?
  • And no matter what option I choose, I would feel compelled to follow through with those changes on my reviews on Goodreads

Now, perhaps a good deal of this privileged, first-world problem I am probably blowing out of proportion likely comes from my anxiety and perfectionism. My particular brand of perfectionism is over-thinking (which is such BFFs with m anxiety that they have matching BFF tattoos). One of the many scoops of anxiety on my anxiety ice cream cone is belittling myself and my accomplishments. Hence, the reason that I have made a post at least once a month for the past year and change is both a big deal to me and at the same time something I don’t really share with anyone because I feel like it’s silly to be proud of. Usually, I go through projects that set myself up to look back on my original work (rather than my progress) and see how poorly it was done and want to obliterate it from reality (or virtual reality).

But I’m spiraling a bit.

So, even though I think New Year’s resolutions are dumb…

Even though I know I will want to delete this post in the future because I self-sabotage…

Even though I know that work I do now and work I do in the future may be drastically different, improved, or take on a new path or meaning…

I won’t see that growth if I cut out all of the progress.

I just need my future self to remember that, so here is your reminder.

 

P.S. I love you and you are doing great.

Review: Fox 8 by George Saunders

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Fox 8 by George Saunders

48 pages

5/5 stars

Synopsis:

A darkly comic short story, a fable about the all too real impact that we humans have on the environment

Fox 8 has always been known as the daydreamer in his pack, the one his fellow foxes regarded with a knowing snort and a roll of the eyes. That is, until Fox 8 develops a unique skill: He teaches himself to speak “Yuman” by hiding in the bushes outside a house and listening to children’s bedtime stories. The power of language fuels his abundant curiosity about people—even after “danjer” arrives in the form of a new shopping mall that cuts off his food supply, sending Fox 8 on a harrowing quest to help save his pack.


Whew! Fox 8 is a short, poignant, and adorable short story that will tear through your emotions and compassion–especially so if you are an animal lover. The book takes the form of a long letter to “Yumans,” a Fox’s name for humans. It starts out charmingly introducing us to Fox 8, a daydreaming, curious fox who learns to speak Yuman. He tells his story in phonetically written English with a lovable vernacular. But the lighthearted tone contrasts with the sad and heartbreaking story that unfolds.

The illustrations that accompany the story are simple, yet fun, with foxes drawn in red. They also add to the character of the fox’s tale, giving it a childlike quality that strikes an even starker contrast with the dark tone. Pick Fox 8 up if you are looking for a deep, good story with a meaningful (but not preachy) message.

Review: The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton

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The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton

272 pages

5/5 stars

Trigger Warning: cutting, self harm

Synopsis:
When Rona Blackburn landed on Anathema Island more than a century ago, her otherworldly skills might have benefited friendlier neighbors. Guilt and fear instead led the island’s original eight settlers to burn “the witch” out of her home. So Rona cursed them. Fast-forward one hundred–some years: All Nor Blackburn wants is to live an unremarkable teenage life. She has reason to hope: First, her supernatural powers, if they can be called that, are unexceptional. Second, her love life is nonexistent, which means she might escape the other perverse side effect of the matriarch’s backfiring curse, too. But then a mysterious book comes out, promising to cast any spell for the right price. Nor senses a storm coming and is pretty sure she’ll be smack in the eye of it. In her second novel, Leslye Walton spins a dark, mesmerizing tale of a girl stumbling along the path toward self-acceptance and first love, even as the Price Guide’s malevolent author — Nor’s own mother — looms and threatens to strangle any hope for happiness.


The Price Guide to the Occult is a fabulous read full of dark magic and mysterious events with elements of thriller and horror. It seems to start out generational with the story of the family patriarch Rona, but quickly zips to present day eighth generation daughter Nor. Wondering whether the family curse will affect her powers and how that will effect her, Nor is just trying to live her life as uneventful as possible. She doesn’t want to be noticed or stand out.

The powers each woman has throughout the book are interesting and not all what you would typically associate with witch powers. Nor’s ability to understand animal and plant emotions gives a nice variety to her thoughts and a clever way to insert another viewpoint without making the story complex and cumbersome. Fern’s power and her use of black magic to feed her spells gives off palpable fear and terror at the things she has done and what she may do to the other characters.

The plot itself is dark and twisted, especially towards the end as we see Fern spiral further and further into madness. I often have a hard time with YA because I feel the characters are too simple and the motivation or plot drive is weak, tried, and basic, but this book is well written and I had to double check that it was actually a YA book for my tags while writing this up. You can sense a depth beneath the characters’ traits even if the brevity of the novel limits what they actually display for us. The ending does not wrap up nice and tidy, which works well for the story. It leaves you wondering just how Nor’s life, and the life of other witches, will change as a different dark and dangerous threat emerges.

And let’s not forget that marvelous book cover. Blood-tipped ferns, bright blood red page edges, and thorn-laced font set the tone for the book. Pick The Price Guide to the Occult up no matter what you like to read.

Review: A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne M Harris

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A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne M. Harris, Bonnie Helen Hawkins (Illustrator)

240 pages

5/5 stars

I am as brown as brown can be,
And my eyes as black as sloe;
I am as brisk as brisk can be,
And wild as forest doe.
(The Child Ballads, 295)

So begins a beautiful tale of love, loss and revenge. Following the seasons, A Pocketful of Crows balances youth and age, wisdom and passion and draws on nature and folklore to weave a stunning modern mythology around a nameless wild girl.

Only love could draw her into the world of named, tamed things. And it seems only revenge will be powerful enough to let her escape.

Beautifully illustrated by Bonnie Helen Hawkins, this is a stunning and original modern fairytale.

Where do I begin with this fabulous book?! The imagery and descriptions are poetic and flow so smoothly. Witness nature in all of its gore and glory meld with subtle-yet-mesmerizing magic. The book is balanced out with lovely illustrations as well as quotes and rhymes that begin each chapter to bring a depth and fullness to the small, simple book. 

Following a fierce, isolated, girl who is one of the traveling folk, a shapeshifter of sorts, she is wild and one with nature. But her nature also makes her curious when she spies a noble boy riding near her territory and her life shifts with the new knowledge of knowing him and slowly letting him tame her. Betrayal and revenge go hand in hand with her need to reclaim and rewild herself, all leading up to the inevitability of curses and a newfound depth to her people and spirit.

A Pocketful of Crows has the hallmarks of a fairy tale in all its grit and grandeur and just makes my little pagan heart flutter. Naïveté lost, lessons learned, and righteous rage slip like silk across the pages. Seeded with folk lore, superstition, and magic, if ever there was such a thing as pagan inspirational fiction, this would be it.

And William still does not understand why I cannot give him my name. ‘You must have a name,’ he says one day. ‘All God’s creatures have a name.’

But I am not one of his creatures. My people are older than your God. My people were here when these mountains were ice, and these valleys were nothing but streamlets running down from the glacier. I have been every bird, every beast, every insect you can name. And so I have no name of my own, and cannot be tamed or commanded.

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Review: Elevation by Stephen King

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Elevation by Stephen King

146 pages

2/5 stars

Elevation was just an OK read. I feel like the synopsis for the book was wrong. Scott is not “battling” the lesbians next door. They only interact once in the beginning about the couples dogs pooping on his lawn and they don’t pick it up. Scott takes photograph proof that it is their dogs to their house to try and ask them to just pick it up after their dogs go. He doesn’t even care that they go on his lawn, just that it is picked up.

The story is split between Scott’s weight suddenly dropping and the town’s dislike of the lesbian couple who recently moved in and opened a restaurant. Scott’s weight seems to be dropping no matter what he is wearing or holding. Wearing a pocketful of change or holding weights still reads the same on scales as when he is naked. He also doesn’t appear to be losing any weight. 

Most of the town hates the lesbian women more for being married than for just being lesbians, or so they say. This makes the progression of the townsfolk from anti-married lesbians at the beginning of the novella to accepting and supporting their restaurant to the point of flourishing a bit of a stretch, but I liked the sentiment.

I would have given Elevation 3 stars, but the ending was just a little too out of left field for me. Even in a King book, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. I’m glad it was a novella though, as he tends to add too much filler, even when the story is great.

Review: Quakery by Lydia Kang, Nate Pedersen

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Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
by Lydia Kang, Nate Pedersen

344 pages

4/5 stars

Quackery is a compendium of the foolish, horrific, strange, and highly questionable ways that people have tried to heal, improve, and extend their lives. The tonics, tactics, and belief in quackery are not just a thing of the past; as Kang and Pedersen point out, modern quackery like detoxes, cleanses, clay eating, cupping, bloodletting, persist to this day.

Chapters focus on the elements, plants and soil, tools, animals, and mystery powders and discuss everything from curing with sex to tobacco smoke enemas to the (fake) healing powers of persistent blistering and wound irritation. Mini stories are tucked into each section as well as “Hall of Shame” honorable mentions.

But we haven’t completely cut out animals from our drugs. Indeed, the dedicated vegan frequently finds himself in a quandary. Lest we feel too superior to our ancestors, here are some twenty-first-century cures rendered medieval style:

Diabetes Extract the pancreatic secretions of a hog, freshly killed, and inject into a vein in your arm. (insulin)

Dry eyes Extract the oil from the skin glands of a sheep and apply to eyes. (lanolin)

General illness Powder a variety of medical ingredients. Boil the bones, ligaments, and tendons of a cow or pig, and create a capsule from resulting mixture. Fill the capsule with medical ingredients, encouraging patient to swallow. (gelatin)

Post-menopausal hot flashes Drink the urine of an impregnated mare. (Premarin)

Prevent blood clotting Extract mucus from the intestinal membranes of slaughtered pigs or from the lungs of slaughtered cows. Inject. (heparin)

-pg 242-243

These mini histories cover some of the topics I have read previously for more in-depth information (such as arsenic wallpaper, poisons of all kinds, radium, and cannibalism). However, Quackery is still a good read even knowing some of the stories and histories, as it gives a larger context and overarching societal thoughts of the day. 

Don’t let this smallish book fool you. Quackery is packed with information in bit-sized portions. In fact, it is quite dense when it comes to picking it up and flipping through the pages. The paper quality is nice and thick with a solid binding and color pages (I love that the edges are shaded green) that show as well as tell the information. It is an accessible book for those looking to a curious read. 

Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

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A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

372 pages

4/5 stars

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a multi-generational story set in Afghanistan, mostly in the city of Kabul. The events take place over the course of 30 volatile and drastically changing years where liberation and equality is quickly replaced by rebel wars and Taliban rule.

Hosseini’s writing is transportive. Most westerners have little to no knowledge about nearly anything regarding the Near East, but Hosseini paints the beautiful, yet horrendous picture of events surrounding Kabul in an easily accessible format.

The story predominantly follows Miriam and Laila as they try and survive their fates. Both women are flung into chaos, crippling patriarchy, and emotional turmoil. Despite the terrible circumstances they live through, the development of female companionship and trust adds complexity to what can sometimes be a straight forward and predictable story.

Despite the predictability, the story reaches deep and helps to put the issues those of us in the west only hear about into some perspective. There were a few times that I was taken off guard and the shocking or sudden shifts propel the story forward. I recommend A Thousand Splendid Suns for those looking for a compelling story, especially if they are not familiar with books taking place in Afghanistan.