How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

magoon_howwentdownMagoon, Kekla. How It Went Down. New York: Henry Holt, 2014. Print.

Genre: YA (Rashomon)

Summary: The tragic shooting of a young black man rips apart an inner city neighborhood. The white man responsible for the killing walks free. Sound familiar? Sadly, this tragic scenario expends gallons of newspaper ink and hours of news coverage across the country as it plays out again and again in real life. Magoon captures the pain and confusion behind the headlines. No wonder this book received honors from the Coretta Scott King Book Awards!

Critique: Magoon is a careful, thoughtful storyteller, unwrapping each layer of the event. The “facts” replay and evolve as readers view the tragedy through the eyes of a different witness or participant. Over the course of subsequent re-tellings, a Rashomon effect causes every version to slightly or significantly contradict all other versions. Details abound, and yet, all they do is muddy the already rippled waters.

Truth turns slippery and smokey the more readers and characters try to understand why Tariq Johnson was shot. The shooter insists his actions were defensive, even heroic, removing yet another violent gang member from the streets. But other witnesses swear that Tariq had zero involvement with gangs. That he was holding a candy bar, not a gun. Motives and emotions obliterate memories and gradually erode the narrative until all that’s left is intense grief and fear.

Most frightening of all is how the human mind often has no inkling its memories and perceptions have been warped over time. Truth wears countless, tricky masks.

Body of Knowledge by Yours Truly

muse-magazine-february-2016Today, I’m as happy as a maggot in pus because my short story, “Body of Knowledge” appears in the the February 2016 issue of Muse Magazine for Kids!

Based on true events in 19th century Dublin, the hair-raising tale follows four teens on a midnight errand to rob a grave! If I’ve done my job as a storyteller, then Robert Knox, Astley Cooper, and John Hunter are rolling in their graves (joyfully, of course)!

Warning: readers who do not like gore are sure to find this story just “offal.”

Artist Duncan Long provided a haunting set of illustrations to accompany the story!


Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Murray_skippyMurray, Paul. Skippy Dies. London: Penguin, 2010. Print.

Genre: literary fiction (for adults) (I argue: YA contemporary)

Summary: Howard (the coward) returns to teach at his alma mater, Seabrook College. Howard never achieved the fame and fortune that is expected of Seabrook graduates. Instead, he muddles through his life and relationships burdened with the secrets that would surely tarnish Seabrook’s reputation if they ever came to light. Before the school year is out, Howard is snagged into yet another school tragedy when the boy everyone calls “Skippy” mysteriously dies.

Critique: This book was not marketed as a cross-over that adults and young adults might enjoy, and I think that was a mistake. I lived in Ireland when this book came out. I saw teens gorging on the 600+ pages. I saw them swarm the author at readings around Dublin as if he were the new Rowling or Meyers!

The text plays (timidly) with fonts to indicate cell phone ring tones, hit songs, and other quirks of digitized teenage life. The point of view cunningly shifts from close third to second person whenever characters slip from sober to high. And Murray’s humor mingles the wry, dark, and tragic. Don’t be surprised if you laugh in the midst of bitter tears.

This book was short- and long-listed for nearly every UK book award, including the Mann Booker. And it’s no surprise why: rather than pooh-pooh the trials of teenage life and love, this book employs string theory, Irish folklore, and the complex mathematics to capture this devastatingly explosive time in all our lives. Suddenly, blazingly, staggeringly, readers realize the human heart is a complicated realm, regardless of your age! Where Murray might have been timid with fonts, he is unreservedly bold with contemporary issues like bullying, sexual molestation, and drug abuse.

Indeed, this book is not for the timid. No. It is for the brave parents, teens, and other readers who acknowledge life is not a safe haven, but a savage garden of good and evil, tragic and jolly. Those who enjoy John Green and A. S. King will adore Skippy Dies.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

wein_codenameverityWein, Elizabeth. Code Name Verity. New York: Hyperion, 2012. Print.

Genre: YA historical fiction

Summary: World War II historical fiction of the most gripping kind! Either the protagonist, Julie (AKA “Verity”) spills her guts about her spying exploits or her Gestapo torturers will…well, spill her guts for her!

Critique: This book is an epistolary thriller (thought you’d never see that combo, right?) assembled from hotel stationary scraps, prescription cards, and any other pulpy item around that can be scrounged up. The more the pieces assemble Verity’s confessions, the deeper readers dig into her friendship with female pilot, Maddie. Eventually, readers discover that Maddie flew the plane that crashed landed Verity right into enemy hands. And just when the narrative reveals Maddie’s fate since the crash, readers lose contact with Verity!

The motivations driving the characters are electrically urgent and starkly primal! The historical facts are cunningly deployed. The pace is a swift, cruel dive into constant unknowns and dangers. The pages might as well be coated in super glue — no way can you put this book down!

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block

Block_WeetzieBatBlock, Francesca Lia. Weetzie Bat. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. Print.

Genre: YA novella

Summary: Weetzie Bat is just your ordinary skinny California girl until she coaxes a genie out of lamp and makes three wishes that will make all her dreams come true…sort of.

Critique: You know how Dirty Dancing (1987) used all that sexy swaying to become this huge hit movie despite being about abortion? Well this book does that, too, only its language is the sexy swaying and its core topic is AIDS. Won’t it be interesting to see if director Elgin James retains this feature as he directs the forthcoming film?

The magical realism of this book succeeds in large part because the writing feels like the sparkling fun tumble of confetti. And yet, to be such a condensed story suggests meticulous editing, whittling, deciding, and killing of darlings. I admire Block’s savagery. Readers must bring more to the story than is provided on each page. The result is a thoroughly satisfying partnership between the story and the reader. Readers feel like the co-creator of the story.

Stylistically, this novella reads like a poem, with all the crunch and slush of bicycle spokes reciting epic sagas. For instance, “Weetzie and My Secret Agent Lover Man and Dirk and Duck and Cherokee and Witch Baby and Slinkster Dog and Go-Go Girl and the puppies Pee Wee, Wee Wee, Teenie Wee, Tiki Tee, and Tee Pee, were driving down Hollywood Boulevard on their way to the Tick Tock Tea Room for turkey platters.” See how that sentences just rides on and on? Well, the whole book cruises just like that; just like the eighties; just like a bodacious dude or dudette on a skateboard.