Turn On and Be Not Alone: Rock Stars, Writers, and Men Named David

Bowie plaque unveiled

At 17, I was a sad scribbler of overwrought rhyming poetry, a talentless back row chorus girl in the annual spring musical, a closet nerd who compulsively taped reruns of The X-Files off the Scifi Channel. I was pretty sure I’d never know an epic alien-hunting love like Mulder and Scully’s, and I was most certainly going to fail physics for the year. Like so many teenagers, especially those who happen to be only children, and especially those who didn’t always feel safe or stable at home, the private world I  built in my room was what sustained and comforted me throughout my adolescence. That world was built with the soft glow of the TV, with stacks of books and journals strewn everywhere and anywhere except on a shelf, and of course, with music.

In middle school it was all about boy bands and badass divas (your N’Syncs, your JLos, your Mariahs) followed by a fervent and lengthy phase of nothing. but. show-tunes. I could probably still sing you the first 20 minutes of Les Miserables from memory- but don’t worry, I won’t. By the time junior year of high school rolled around, I’d diversified my tastes, partly thanks to my good friend and music guru, Mike.

Mike and I had known each other since elementary school, but it wasn’t until high school that we drifted into the same social circle and connected, often late at night via the internet, with dispatches from our own bedroom encampments sent out over livejournal or aol instant messenger, often around 1:30am when neither of us had even started the lab report due in homeroom the next day. That year, Mike starred as Horton in the drama club’s production of Suessical. He would go on to get a music degree and become (in my opinion) the hottest damn drag queen in all of Pennsylvania.

But at 17, Mike made amazing mix cds: indie rock, freak folk, neo-jazz- I found it all unfamiliar and grating at first, but the more I listened, the more these songs spoke to me and spun my head around, the more they became the anthems of my own private country.

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The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

maddnessunderneath

Disclaimer 1: Maureen gave me (and everyone who preordered this book) free stickers. I’m not saying this swayed my review, but I am saying that I’ve never openly disliked anything that left me with a pocketful of stickers[1]

 Disclaimer 2: This review contains spoilers for The Name of the Star. I repeat, if you have not yet read book 1 in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, turn back now. You have been warned.

At the beginning of The Madness Underneath, we find our Cheez Whiz-loving heroine, Rory Devereaux sitting across from a calm-faced Scottish therapist trying to run out the clock on her session without a) showing any real emotional vulnerability or b) betraying the fact that she occasionally has conversations with dead people. Because, as it turns out, when you move from the American South to a boarding school in London, develop the ability to see ghosts in an unfortunate dining hall accident, then get stalked and sliced up the middle by a deranged ghost who has spent the better part of the year terrorizing the city with copycat Jack the Ripper murders, therapy may just be the best place for you.

Rory is stuck with her parents in Bristol, far away from her friends at Wexford and unable  to contact The Shades, the group of secret ghost-fighting police who have become her friends and protectors. To further complicate matters, Rory’s near-fatal run-in with a murderous ghost at the end of book 1 has left her with the strange and perplexing power to destroy ghosts with a single touch.

I’ve read a few of Maureen Johnson’s books, and while I’ve enjoyed them all, The Shades of London series has inspired in me a sort of frightening evangelical zeal. These books are so. good. For me, what sets this series apart is the sharp, funny narrative voice. Rory is a heroine brave enough to face down killers yet so hilariously and believably flawed that we can’t help relating to her and rooting for her. Maureen Johnson does a masterful job of balancing comedy and suspense, and each chapter is shot through with funny tangents and diversions, the sort of zany, odd humor that rings very familiar if you follow her on twitter. Especially hilarious were the stories about Rory’s family and neighbors in Louisiana, a cast of characters who fill the second floors of their homes with refrigerators, who start religions out of their garage, who go caroling on Halloween “to fight the devil” and who sometimes dress as Spiderman, climb statues, and chuck bread at passersby.

While this book is about ghosts and boarding school, it is also a book about a young person trying to rebuild a sense of self and return to everyday life after a serious trauma. Maureen Johnson does a subtle, skillful job of portraying a post-trauma Rory. We certainly recognize her as the same character from Book 1, yet she has been changed by what happened to her. She is scarred in ways not even she understands yet. There are the physical changes- the jagged scar up her abdomen, her strange new power to destroy the dead- but we also find her emotionally altered, detached from the realities of school and staring down unscalable walls in each of her relationships.

On a slightly tangential note, I also appreciated that Maureen Johnson, perhaps as a counterpoint to the “deranged” ghosts enacting violence on the living, wrote Stephen as a strong, successful character who is very frank about his mental illness and treatment.

The last few chapters of this book clip along at a dizzying pace then crash to a halt in a truly shattering cliff hanger. I definitely look forward to the next two installments in this series. When can I start offering Maureen Johnson my possessions via twitter in exchange for an ARC of book 3? Soon, I hope.

Follow Maureen Johnson on twitter here for more about her books and an almost constant stream of general strangeness in 140 characters.

1 Just kidding. Sometimes I joke, but my journalistic integrity remains intact. That said, if you have any stickers and you’re looking for someone to take them off your hands, send them to:

Meg Carroll

Tiny Boston Apartment without Living Room

Neighborhood with Too Many Dive Bars, MA

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Review of Graceling by Kristen Cashore

Image Having grown-up with the feisty girl-knight in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series, I cannot get my fill of sword-wielding, arrow-shooting, karate-chopping girl heroines.

Kristin Cashore’s young adult fantasy novel Graceling delivers, with a determined heroine whose fierceness is both alluring and intimidating. Graceling’s heroine Katsa lives in a land of Seven Kingdoms competing for power. Cashore creates a stunning world, in which each of the Kingdoms breathes its own unique personality. One of the things readers will love about this book is discovering the climates and attitudes of all the different Kingdoms. Each one has distinct and remarkable features; there’s a vastly diverse backdrop of mountains, sea and forest. With Katsa’s journey (because there is, of course, an epic journey), we not only see her inner world develop as she learns and grows, but we are allowed to explore with her the Kingdoms that she is visiting for the first time.

One of the most fascinating concepts of Graceling is the Graces themselves. Not everyone in the Seven Kingdoms is Graced; children are either born normal or born with two different eye colors. The Graces, simply put, are natural abilities enhanced. They could be anything from fighting to swimming to baking. Some are seen as valuable while others are considered less useful. Children could go years before knowing what their Grace is. In Katsa’s case, she discovers her powers at the young age of eight when she accidently kills one of her step-cousins by hitting him in the face with a single blow.

Instead of being banished or killed, Katsa undergoes severe training allowing her to control her deadly combat skills. Unfortunately, her uncle, King Randa, forces her to be an assassin for Middluns, her home kingdom. In retaliation, Katsa forms a secret Council with her friends, a group that attempts to right the wrongs of the bickering kingdoms.

After disobeying King Randa’s orders, Katsa has a choice between banishment and death. She decides to go with her new friend Prince Po and try to uncover the mystery surrounding the peaceful but remote Kingdom of Monsea, separated by a tall mountain pass, where King Leck rules without war or fear.

Oh yeah, it’s also a love story.

Which is predicable in young adult fiction. But this love story has class.

Never before have I seen romance and kick-ass feminism so perfectly woven together with a thrilling suspenseful story set against a vibrant but violent world.

The romance is strong, beautiful and organic. It doesn’t matter that you see it coming from a mile off; Cashore writes it so well that it simply feels like puzzle pieces snapping together.

Of course, there is a twist. From the beginning of their relationship, Katsa’s stance on marriage and children is stern. In the society that she lives in, wives are considered property of their husbands. They are expected to bear children and entertain guests, two things Katsa knows, in her heart, she has no desire to do.

And this really does make for a braver romance. It’s a romance that girls and women of today can relate to much more than instant marriage and happiness. It gives the message that relationships don’t magically fall into place. They are spontaneous, exciting, anxiety-producing partnerships. And to be in love, to be happy, you don’t need to be married.

Young readers and fantasy lovers alike will relate to Katsa’s blunt and straightforward nature. The way she deals with being a strong, fighting girl in a sexist fantasy world is rational and logical. Cashore is able to take subject matter that is a huge concern for teenage girls and allow them to question it in a brand new setting.

All of this is woven so seamlessly within the story that it won’t bang you over the head. The adventure in the story keeps the characters strong. What I liked was that the story seemed predictable in the beginning, and while some plot points happened just the way I expected, others just kept on surprising me, keeping me biting my lip and chewing my fingernails until the very end. Always a good feeling.

I am currently reading the semi-sequel Bitterblue, the tale of Katsa’s princess friend trying to rule a broken kingdom.

You can check out Cashore’s website here.

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