This Mortal Coil by Emily Suvada—a review

The last two years have taught us what we could not forget: that animals taste a lot like people.

And that’s how you hook a reader on the second page.

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A twisty love story about identity and what makes us human, an explosive techno-thriller about playing God with genetic code, a dystopian survival story—This Mortal Coil is all of these things, and not once did I feel like shuffling off from its four hundred plus pages. (Kudos to Suvada for acknowledging the Monty Python connection in the title with a seemingly tossed off line late in the novel.)

Much like Elliot in Mr. Robot, Catarina Agatta is a young hacker with extraordinary talents and major father issues. The evil corporation here is Cartaxus, and when we meet Catarina, she is struggling to survive in the wilderness: survive her hunger, survive her isolation, survive the Wrath caused by the Hydra Virus that has led most survivors to flee to the supposed safety of the Cartaxus bunkers. But these bunkers are not for Catarina—her brilliant geneticist father, Dr. Lachlan Agatta, ordered her to stay in the wild when he and his assistant (and Catarina’s romantic interest) Dax were forcibly taken by Cartaxus operatives.

Two years later, and Catarina’s fragile existence in the resistance is threatened by the arrival at her cabin of Cartaxus soldier Cole. However, Cole, like nearly every character in Suvada’s engaging novel, is more complicated than he seems at first glance. He and Catarina join forces in a race to build a vaccine before the virus mutates further. This race for a cure leads Catarina to learn more about her own identity and the role her father has played in shaping this world.

Breathless in the best ways, This Mortal Coil pauses to provide nuanced discussion of the ethics of altering our fundamental genetic identities—and does so without every seeming preachy or pedantic. My students and I eagerly await book two, This Cruel Design, which is to be released this fall.

 

Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin—a review

“Why do you stay here? He seems really mean.”

“I don’t know where else to go . . .”

In the America of Lean on Pete, you’re either rooted or rootless, bound or footloose, but hounded always by the past. You live in the shadows, even when you live in the exposed skeleton of the desert. Hidden from view—children invisible to their parents, women invisible to the men who use them, drunk and disappointed dreamers invisible to the wider world. Or worse: those no longer dreaming, just damned.

This is the world of Charley Thompson, fifteen years old and living in a Portland shack with a sometimes father and a constant hunger. Running the streets (literally) to pursue his dream of playing football for his new high school when the school year starts, Charley is driven into the sadness of Del Montgomery, a hobbled horse trainer and trader. Working for Del provides Charley with some money, a further education into the corrupt soul of the American Dream, and a quiet friendship with a horse named Lean on Pete.

Circumstances drive Charley deeper into Del’s world, until Pete is too worn down for Del to lean on any longer. Choosing rootless over rooted in cruelty, Lean on Pete becomes travels with Charley (and Pete), a great escape across the northern passage of the American West. Though he feels damned at times, Charley still dreams, dreams of reuniting in Wyoming with the only family member he knows, his aunt.

With a parsimony befitting both the physical and emotional geography, Vlautin gives us a coming of age survival story in an America many of us willingly shutter, a novel illuminating the harrowing strain involved in chipping away at American rust.

I admit it took the positive buzz around the film version to bring this quietly devastating novel to the top of my to-be-read pile, but the subtle redemption of Lean on Pete should be read immediately.

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Venn Diagram

On the worst of days,

the Venn diagram

of what we love

and what we fear

appears as only one circle.

 

On the best of days,

the Venn diagram

of who we are

and who we should be

appears as only one circle.

 

On most of days,

the Venn Diagram

of our living moments

overlap,

spring and neap,

gibbous and crescent.

Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson—a review

 

One of the most popular titles in my classroom this past school year, Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson reads much like the storm that raged this morning as I zipped through the final 200 pages—jolting thunder, cracks of lightning, and even when things seem calm, a persistent menace.

Fifteen-year-old Mary lives in a horror-show of a group home, ill-treated by those running the home, tortured by her fellow housemates, a lost soul in a crumbling juvenile justice system. But why should we feel sorry for her? After all, nine-year-old Mary murdered the infant her mother was supposed to be taking care of.

Allegedly.

Justice moves slowly, and when a baby is killed, society prefers the viper strike of vengeance; thus Mary’s silence in the aftermath of tiny Alyssa’s death quickly combines with the testimony of Mary’s mother to send Mary into the isolation of “baby jail.”

Mary eventually ages out of “baby jail” and into the group home, where the few “freedoms” include community service. The nursing home where Mary “volunteers” leads to her meeting Ted, a fellow “volunteer” living a similarly adjudicated reality. Ted is the one light in Mary’s darkness, and when Mary reveals she is pregnant, Ted stays true to her.

Allegedly.

Her pregnancy puts Mary in another kind of “baby jail”: the reality that the state plans to take her baby and put it up for adoption. After all, how can a baby-killer be expected to be a good mother? The prospect of having her baby taken away leads Mary to revisit her past and, with the help of strong women like her SAT tutor Ms. Claire and crusading lawyer Ms. Cora, rebuild a future where the truth about Mary’s past is revealed.

Allegedly.

Brutal and disturbing in its depictions of broken lives, broken minds, and broken systems, Allegedly casts into question our notions of justice, sanity, and forgiveness, Allegedly uses Mary’s compelling voice to relentlessly push us forward, plot twist after plot twist, revelation after revelation. But for those who expect a clear light ahead after such darkness, Jackson complicates our “happy” ending.

Allegedly.

After The Shot Drops by Randy Ribay–a review.

“Sometimes the corniest things are the things we need to say the most, the things people need to hear the most.”

I need help.

I miss you.

I should have told you.

I’m sorry.

I’m scared.

 

After The Shot Drops by Randy Ribay could have been titled The Importance of Being Earnest (I’m told this title is already taken). Sure, Ribay’s powerful narrative is also part of a LeBron-like run of great young adult basketball novels (The Crossover/Rebound, Boy21, Hooper, All American Boys, The Hate U Give), but like those novels, After The Shot Drops has higher goals and largely reaches them.

Ball is life for teenage prodigy Bunny, so much so that he transfers from his public school to an elite private school to maximize his potential and exposure. But has he left himself behind in doing so? Is his identity at St. Sebastian’s only that of a basketball god for hire? Can he handle the incredible whiteness of being at such a school? Has he betrayed his past?

His friends from Whitman seem to think so. In particular, his best friend and neighbor Nasir has ghosted him since the decision to transfer. Bunny throws himself into basketball with even more fervor and focus, and his game and his fame increase exponentially as St. Sebastian’s marches toward the state championship.

Meanwhile, Nasir (the novel is told in alternating narration between Nasir and Bunny) tries to help his cousin Wallace extricate himself from his difficult economic reality, a reality made even more difficult by Wallace’s life choices. Speaking of difficult, Nasir discovers Bunny is now dating Keyona, Nasir’s long-time crush from Whitman. Both Bunny and Nasir miss the solace their friendship provided, but pride/male stubbornness prevents the rapprochement both crave. Finally, circumstances (in other words, no spoilers) push Nasir and Bunny back together, threatening Bunny’s basketball dreams and more than just their friendship.

In a broader American culture where too many males are more comfortable handling weapons than their emotions, stories like After The Shot Drops are vital. Taking on the “guy code” and the “code of the streets,” Ribay shows in After The Shot Drops how friendship and honesty can crack these codes.

 

Eggshells by Caitriona Lally—a review.

I never know how to respond to people who want small complete sentences with one tidy meaning. I can’t explain myself to people who peer out windows and think they know the world.

 

So says Vivian, the narrator of Eggshells, a poignant novel about what it means to walk on the margins of our world. And how much you believe in her credo above will largely dictate your response to Lally’s novel. If you are looking for “one tidy meaning,” walk on. If you are looking for a narrator who sees the world slant, who compulsively lists the names for things, whose daily forays around Dublin in search of secret portals and social interaction inevitably end in failure, walk with Vivian and her new friend Penelope.

Vivian is mad, crazy, convinced she is a changeling, broken, isolated, vexing, annoying—she is every hygenically-challenged person you’ve ever avoided on public streets and transportation. But like Ray in Sara Baume’s magisterial Spill Simmer Falter Wither, Vivian sees the world in angles and dimensions the rest of us generally fail to: the earned perspective of a social isolate who has not stopped observing. People walking on the margins, fragile and largely forgotten—people whose attempts at human interaction largely falter because their perceptions of life are drawn to a different scale, people whose sense of language rings with half-notes and microtones inaudible to most.

Though heartbreaking, Vivian’s loneliness is also filled with whimsy and heroism; she can’t go on, but she goes on. Eggshells hints, toward the end, at causal factors for Vivian’s isolation, but those in search of cause and effect have missed the point of Lally’s novel. Or so I think, having peered into the window of Vivian’s world and left seeing our own a bit more slant.