Book Review: Light from Other Stars by Erika Swyler (2019)

Friday, May 10th, 2019

“Behind every brilliant woman is her doubly brilliant mother.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for child abuse.)

She knew them by their light, the gentle differences—Amit’s warm, yellowish brown, Evgeni who glowed like a pearl, Louisa who was brighter than all of them. Nedda would know them anywhere; if she lost their shapes, she’d recognize their light.

They would likely die. It was why they were childless, unwed. Freedom of sacrifice. It was a shame that only three people would ever again be in the same room as Evgeni when he sang. Only three people would know that Singh ate with his pinkie out. That Marcanta pulled hairs from her eyebrows when frustrated. Children would know their names, and drive on roads named Sokolov or Papas. Children would know their ship, Chawla, and who she’d hauled. A little girl somewhere would rattle off everything she’d read about them, and with it everything she knew about space and time, about light.

“I got a boat too. It’s not real big, just enough to take a few people out, that’s all.”

“What’d you name it?”

Flux Capacitor.”

Doc Brown’s a better name.”

“Yeah, but boats are women.”

“Everything’s a woman. Cars, boats, houses. Anywhere that’s safe or takes you somewhere better is a woman,” she said.

“So, Chawla is a woman?”

“Obviously.” She opened her eye to find him staring.

Her father’s machine was as much hope and wish as it was metal and glass.

In the present day – her present, our future – Nedda Papas has achieved everything she’s dreamed of. As one quarter of the crew of Chawla, Nedda is humanity’s last best chance. Climate change has wrought havoc on earth: rising sea levels have disappeared entire islands and shrunk continents, hunger fueled by drought is the new normal, and wildfires plague what little land is left. The planet is beyond saving; now flight is the only long-term option.

Sent to colonize another planet in a galaxy far, far away, Nedda will never again set foot on earth. And she’s okay with that – it’s for the greater good, after all, and doesn’t she owe her species at least that much, anyway? But when cost-cutting and politicking threatens Chawla’s success, Nedda must revisit her past in order to salvage our future.

It was 1986 when Nedda’s world imploded: first, with the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster; and again with Theo Pappas’s magnum opus, the Crucible.

Light from Other Stars unfolds in two parallel narratives: aboard the Chawla, and in January/February 1986, when Nedda is eleven years old.

Middle-schooler Nedda lives Easter, Florida, in the shadow of Kennedy Space Center. She and her professor father Theo – newly laid off from NASA after the latest round of budget cuts – are inseparable, whether devising and executing experiments or trying to spot Halley’s Comet shoot across the night sky. Her relationship with mother Betheen is a little frostier, but not necessarily for lack of mutual interests: Beth is a chemist. But her (women’s) work is undervalued, because of course it is. It also doesn’t help that Betheen has been drowning in grief for most of young Nedda’s life. But spoilers!

Theo has suffered from psoriatic arthritis since childhood, and the joint pain and inflammation makes his work difficult (as does the markedly inferior resources at Haverstone College). Ostensibly, this is the impetus behind his crowning achievement, the Crucible, a machine that can slow down, stop, or even reverse time (and thus heal all manner of physical injuries) by manipulating entropy. (Swyler includes a fair amount of background on the science, only a fraction of which I can claim to understand, and I have no idea how sound it is. But I didn’t find these bits boring or excessive, fwiw.)

Theo’s machine is a success, in a manner of speaking, but things go sideways, because of course they do. When Crucible threatens to devour all of Easter (including Nedda’s best friend Denny), it’s up to Nedda and Betheen to save the day.

Judy Resnik, Sally Ride, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, Ed White – Nedda’s heroes have always been astronauts. WWJD – What would Judy do?

As much as I loved Swyler’s previous novel, The Book of Speculation, I think she managed to outdo herself with Light from Other Stars. It is beautiful and magical and excruciating in the best way. I am writing this review weeks after turning the last page, tears coursing down my face anew. (Okay, that makes my ugly crying sound a lot prettier than it is. A spectacle, I am making one.)

A big part of this are the passages on death and dying and the afterlife. I’m an atheist, and don’t generally envy people their religious beliefs … that is, unless it’s the comfort that the grieving can find in stories about heaven (or reincarnation, or what have you). Some days I’d give anything to believe that I’ll be reunited with my deceased love ones, eventually. But I can’t make myself believe in something I don’t, even when it’s convenient, and so I go scavenging for secular comfort wherever I can find it, like a sad, lonely little heathen magpie.

I find it in all sorts of places (but mostly books, to no one’s surprise): Aaron Freeman’s essay, “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral.” The passages in The Subtle Knife where Lyra and Will lead the ghosts out of the world of the dead. The entire science-based religion created by Lauren Olamina in Octavia Butler’s Parables duology. Add to that Theo Pappas’s ideas about thoughts, memories, and electrical impulses; heat and light; gas and carbon and star parts. (Carl Sagan’s quote about starstuff! I knew I was forgetting something!) There’s some truly breathtaking stuff in here. This is a wonderfully godless book; a wonderful book for the godless. I’ll hold it close to my heart and cherish it, always.

(I want desperately to include some excerpts here, but spoilers!)

Light from Other Stars is also fiercely feminist, even if the ferocity sometimes comes in a whisper instead of a shout. It’s a story about fathers and daughters and fathers and sons … but also, especially, about mothers and daughters and mothers and sons. Nedda’s relationship with Theo is as magnificent as it is tenuous, but her bond with Betheen is all the more wonderful for its complexity, for the way it grows and strengthens and changes – and holds fast even across the vast chasm of space. Nedda’s evolving perception of her mother as she discovers what Betheen is capable of is a revelation. I wonder if they ever perfected that champagne cake together?

Last but not least, it’s a joy to watch as these two narratives come together, often in unexpected ways (Amadeus, I’m looking at you).

Swyler’s writing is exquisite and will pummel you right in the feels. I really hope Netflix picks this one up for a screenplay or miniseries. I need to see what time made liquid looks like, stat.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas (2019)

Friday, April 26th, 2019

A haunting contemplation on love, death, and destiny.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for allusions to rape and mental health issues.)

“The funny thing is, the other time travelers—I’m thinking of Teddy Avedon in particular, he’s been showing me the ropes—they keep telling me that it’s green to be so excited. They mean I’m being gauche. Teddy says I’ll get used to seeing dead people. But I think he’s wrong. Whenever I visit my father, the trees in his garden are young again, and so is he. I will never take that for granted.”

Two women, who’d already witnessed each other’s deaths, married on the first day of spring. […]

Entertainments followed: fifty-five Angharads danced a ballet.

It’s 1967 and time travel is about to become a reality – thanks to four brilliant young women.

The laboratory, in Cumbria, was home to four young scientists. Margaret was a baroness turned cosmologist. Lucille had come from the Toxteth slums to make radio waves travel faster than light. Grace—who never gave the same account of her history twice—was an expert in the behavior of matter. And the last was Barbara: the baby of the group, hair so fair it was nearly white, ruddy-cheeked and naively wholesome. She specialized in nuclear fission.

Among other things, their invention will make it more difficult for society to deny them their accomplishments:

And because time travellers appear again and again as the years go by—long past their natural lifespan—it would be harder to write these women out of history. They would be visible, for all to see.

Yet, shortly after traveling forward an hour into the future (time travel being possible only between points in which the infrastructure exists which, for the purpose of this story, is between 1967 and 2267 … mysterious!), Barbara – Bee for short – suffers a breakdown on live TV and is promptly institutionalized. It’s later theorized that the disruptions in daylight triggered a bipolar episode in Bee, who was already predisposed. Nevertheless, Bee is ostracized from the burgeoning Time Travel Enclave, largely at funder Margaret’s behest.

Fast forward fifty-plus years. Bee marries, has a child, is widowed, has a grandchild. She shies away from the spotlight and largely abandons her scientific pursuits. She lives a cozy, contented life in a cottage by the sea, kept company by her garden, her doggos, and her granddaughter Ruby. She is, in a way, written out of history (despicably, by another woman).

That is, until the day she finds an origami rabbit on her front step. Inside is in inquest notice, dated five months in the future, into the death of an unidentified woman in her 80s. Afraid that Bee will soon be murdered – multiple gunshot wounds, her body discovered in the locked basement boiler room of a toy museum by a volunteer – Ruby launches a covert investigation into the Conclave’s other three founders. Meanwhile, Bee tries to get back into the Conclave’s good graces.

The Psychology of Time Travel jumps back and forth in time – from the invention of time travel in 1967; to last half of 2018, in the months leading up to the murder; to the crime’s fallout, in 2019 – and is told through multiple perspectives: Bee, Margaret, Grace, Lucille, and Ruby, naturally; Odette, the young graduate student who makes the gruesome discovery; Ginger, Ruby’s sometimes-lover; Angharad, an astronaut who joins the Conclave after Bee’s ousting; and Siobhan, a psychologist from the 22nd century. Every. Single. Narrator. is a woman, which is such a refreshing and surprising delight, I can’t even.

Sometimes stories told in this way can prove difficult to follow but, once I got used to the rhythm, I became lost in the tale. It’s a little bit mystery, a lot of geeky good science fiction, and – perhaps above all else – a surprisingly philosophical exploration of how time travel might affect us: the travelers specifically, and society more generally. Mascarenhas’s vision might surprise you.

This is an exceptionally difficult book for me to review, but probably not for the reasons you might think. I read it while one of my beloved puppers – fifteen years young! – was dying…though I did not realize it at the time. She’d been struggling with dementia for about ten months, which was difficult to watch; but I thought we had at least a few more months together. Sadly, O-Ren was euthanized at home five days after I finished The Psychology of Time Travel: she was refusing to eat or drink, and her nighttime pacing became more frantic, even as her energy waned and she could no longer do laps around the house without falling, repeatedly. Most likely she also had a brain tumor, like her friend Mags, who passed away just four months before – on Thanksgiving, no less. One of my final memories of Rennie will be pacing around the house with her while reading The Psychology of Time Travel on my Kindle. Needless to say, this review was written in tears.

Point being, it’s been a rough few years for me. In just under six years, I lost six dogs, a grandmother, and my husband. I had to sell my house and move back home. My last remaining doggo is thirteen-and-a-half and I’m waiting on a neurology consult to see if Finnick might have a brain tumor as well. I don’t know what I’m going to do when he leaves me, too. Some days these dogs are the only thing that keeps me going. In this context, I found The Psychology of Time Travel’s meditations on death especially appealing.

This book is called The PSYCHOLOGY of Time Travel for a reason: turns out that time travel can really fuck a person up.

When you’re a time traveler, the people you love die, and you carry on seeing them, so their death stops making a difference to you. The only death that will ever change things is your own.

This idea is both amazing and terrifying. To think that your loved one will forever exist during a certain period in time, even if they do not exist at this particular moment, and that you can visit them at the drop of a hat, is…wonderful. Magnificent. Liberating. I would give anything to be able to do that. To bump crooked noses with Peedee, or smell Ralphie’s musk, or rub Kaylee’s piggy belly. To talk to Shane or go on a hike with Mags. To once again toss a tennis ball around with little puppy Rennie.

Yet, as we soon learn, this mutability of death is a double-edged sword. Time travelers become cruel. Hardened. Some of this is in the management, sure, but even the “good” ones struggle with doing what’s right – why not, when you can put that weight on your silver self’s shoulders?

The Psychology of Time Travel is a thoughtful contemplation on love, loss, and – yes – destiny. Another pitfall of already knowing the future? Subjugating your will in order to choose the path that you think your life is “supposed” to take: seeing the future makes it so. But who’s to say the future cannot be changed?

So, yes, time travel is a magical experience – but took much knowledge can become a prison of its own.

The time travel also lends itself well to all sorts of neat little details, from the slang (“For instance—intercourse with one’s future self was called forecasting. Intercourse with one’s past self was a legacy fuck.”) to the scenes featuring multiple versions of the same character (see also: slang). You never know just when or how some characters’ lives will intersect, and the guessing makes for a really enjoyable experience.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Sheets by Brenna Thummler (2018)

Tuesday, August 28th, 2018

A ghost story set in a laundromat. Cheeky!

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Ever since the death of her mother in a tragic swimming accident, highschooler Marjorie Glatt has been floating through life, much like a ghost: wispy, invisible, barely clinging to this plane of existence. With Mr. Glatt suffering from clinical depression, Marj is left to look after her younger brother Owen, and run the family laundromat after school, pretty much solo. As if that isn’t bad enough, the neighborhood baddie Nigel Saubertuck is gunning for the Glatt family property, so he can turn it into a five-start resort and yoga spa.

A ghost infestation – by a sweet if bumbling middle schooler named Wendell – brings things to a head. When Wendell’s antics threaten to cost Marjorie her home and livelihood, can he bring the denizens of his ghost town together to help a mortal damsel in distress?

Sheets is … kind of weird and expected, especially since I couldn’t always guess where the plot was headed. This was refreshing; less so was the artwork’s sometimes confusing nature. If I couldn’t anticipate the plot, I had even more trouble figuring out what transpired in certain panels. Even so, I mostly enjoyed the overall style of the art; the buildings, ghosts, and towns are quite charming. The people, on the other hand, kind of icked me out. There’s just something a little off about the faces.

Sheets is an unusual little story that’s great for fans of Houdini; people who like ghost stories of the friendly variety; and perhaps kids who are grieving the loss of a parent. Also misfits and outsiders of all stripes. (But save it for October, if you can: this is definitely a Halloween read!)

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Scout’s Heaven by Bibi Dumon Tak & Annemarie van Haeringen (2018)

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

Lovely in its simplicity.

four out of five stars

(Full disclose: I received a free copy of this book for review through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.)

— 3.5 stars —

It is raining the day Scout takes her last breath.

Little Brother peppers his family with questions: Where has Scout gone, if she’s no longer here? Does it rain above the clouds? Who will feed Scout? Will she have a sea to splash in and other animals to chase? They answer his questions as best they know how and, after burying Scout, coax him to sleep.

The next day, they wake to an impossibly sunny sky. (When you’re in the throes of grief, everything good and pure and beautiful seems a personal affront.)

…and the sound of Scout’s barking, coming from way up high.

Scout’s Heaven is a simple yet elegant book about loss and grief for dog lovers young and old. The whimsical illustrations nicely complement the story, which is more understated here than in similar books I’ve read. With books about “pet” loss, I measure stars in tears shed, and I didn’t bawl nearly as hard as I normally do. But maybe this is a good thing, especially when trying to explain death to kids.

The vague references to Heaven definitely give the book a religious bent, but as an atheist I appreciated it just the same. The message could easily be tweaked to fit with my own favorite imagery, that of the souls of the ghosts in His Dark Materials breaking apart like so many champagne bubbles as they leave the land of the dead and join their daemons in the living world. Particles breaking apart and then coming back together to create new and wonderful creatures. Scout may be in the ground, but she’s everywhere else, too: in the air and sky, the sycamore tree that shades your bedroom window and the squirrel that calls it home. Listen closely, and you can hear her voice.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Everything is The Worst. [PINNED POST]

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss by Patrick O’Malley and Tim Madigan (2017)

Friday, July 28th, 2017

Finding Your Own Path in Grief

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

The writer Anne Lamott says it beautifully: “You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that, over time, the nature of “successful” grieving was redefined in my office by both my clients and me. It wasn’t getting over loss; it was learning to live with it, and to use the grief narrative as a way to preserve a bond with the one who died.

This book will not help you “get over” your grief, but will help you experience your sorrow in its most pure form.

Patrick O’Malley knows a thing or two about loss: not only is he a therapist who specializes in bereavement counseling, but he lost his first-born son, Ryan, before they’d even celebrated his first birthday. As a young husband, new father, and practicing psychotherapist, O’Malley followed the advice of his colleagues – indeed, the same advice he’d given to countless grieving patients – and tried to “get over” Ryan’s death. However, as the prescribed time frame for grieving came and went, O’Malley gradually began to question the wisdom and efficacy of stage-based models of bereavement, perhaps best exemplified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s infamous five stages of grief. (Say it with me: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.)

After much soul searching and years of experience, O’Malley embraced a much kinder and more compassionate framework: one that celebrates the patient’s unique relationship to the deceased; recognizes that we all grieve in our own way, that there is no “one size fits all” model of grief; and uses storytelling to craft a cohesive grief narrative. In this way, grief is not something you “work through” and leave behind you; rather, to love is to grieve, and grieving is one way to keep your loved one alive in your memories. Storytelling – whether through journaling, videotaped recollections, or something else – is a powerful way to do this.

Getting Grief Right consists of three key elements. First, O’Malley briefly explores the history of stage-based models of grief. He then shares the story of his own loss, and in so doing, he illustrates how profoundly his professional wisdom failed him in his greatest time of need. Using his own experiences, as well as those of his patients, as a jumping-off point, O’Malley explores this new approach to dealing with grief.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home by Nicole J. Georges (2017)

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

oh h*ck.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review. Trigger warning for allusions to rape, child abuse, domestic violence, animal abuse, alcoholism, self-harm, and suicidal ideation.)

I first discovered Nicole Georges’s artwork nestled within the pages of Bitch Magazine. Instantaneously smitten, my adoration only grew when I learned that Georges was a vegan who referred to her furry sidekick Beija as her “canine life partner.” Her 2010 Invincible Summer Queer Animal Odyssey calendar still rests in the plastic protective covering it arrived in. (Don’t worry, I take it out every once in awhile for much-deserved admiration.) I enjoyed her debut graphic novel, Invincible Summer: An Anthology, well enough, though haven’t quite gotten around to reading Calling Dr. Laura. Even so, I can say with 99.9% certainty that Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home is her best work yet.

2017-07-14 - For My Dog Mags (Fetch) - 0011 [flickr]

My Mags, more noodle than dog.
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At the tender age of sixteen, Georges adopted a dog as a gift for her then-boyfriend and first love, Tom. The ensuing back-and-forth demonstrates why you should never give a dog as a gift: despite clearing it ahead of time with Tom’s mother, Tom’s stepfather did not sign off on the deal. Nicole’s mom reluctantly allowed her to keep the dog, but Beija’s many behavioral problems quickly wore her patience thin.

Beija harbored an intense dislike/fear of men, children, and veterinarians; did not enjoy being picked up or touched on her sides; did not suffer invasions of space lightly; and frequently antagonized/was victimized by other dogs. She was temperamental and required patience, compassion, and understanding – much like her new human.

And so, in a situation so weird and improbable that it seems like the plot of a bad Fox sitcom, you have both sets of parents conspiring to push their teenagers out of the nest and into a seedy apartment, just so they could have a Beija-free home: “Starting now, this gift would change the course of both our lives. […] All of this in order to keep the dog. As if we’d had a teen pregnancy.”

While Nicole’s relationship with Tom would soon implode, her partnership with Bejia proved to be for keeps. Through unhealthy relationships, annoying roommates, professional upheavals, and the trials and tribulations of growing up and discovering oneself, there was one constant in Nicole life. And if she just so happened to have four legs, a soft tummy, and spoke in a series of barks, whimpers, and tail wags, so what? Family is what you make of it.

2017-07-14 - O-Ren Hearts Fetch - 0011 [flickr]

Fetch is Rennie-approved.
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Most of the blurbs I’ve read so far focus on the coming-of-age aspect of Fetch (e.g., it’s not “just” a book about a dog). And while it is indeed that – after all, at the time of her death, Beija had lived with Nicole for almost exactly half of Nicole’s life – to me Fetch is, above all else, a love letter to and everlasting celebration of a best friend. A soul mate. A patronus, to quote Georges. (A daemon, in my vocab.) The dogs, they will always come first. PRIORITIES.

There’s this one Mutts comic I love: It’s a lovely day, and Ozzie is walking Earl on a long leash. A little heart bobs in a thought bubble above the human’s head. To the right is a quote by one W.R. Purche: “Everyone thinks they have the best dog. And none of them are wrong.”

To borrow a phrase from an online friend (Marji Beach, who works at another awesome animal sanctuary called Animal Place), it’s clear that Nicole considers Beija the best worst dog ever. Their love for one another shines through every panel and page, making the inevitable goodbye that much more heartbreaking. It took me a full week to read the book, just because I couldn’t bear to face the last forty pages.

I think it’s safe to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, especially when it comes to Fetch, and animal lovers will take something a little extra special away from their experience. When I say “animal lovers,” I mean both in the conventional sense – i.e., those who care for culturally appropriate animals, such as dogs, cats, horses, and rabbits – as well as those of use who extend that circle of compassion to all nonhumans. There are precious few comic books that I could call overtly vegan – only two come to mind, namely Matt Miner’s Liberator and The Animal Man by Grant Morrison – and I’m happy to add Fetch to the list. While Georges only drops the v*-word (vegetarian or vegan) a handful of times, she does introduce readers to animal rights issues in a gentle, subtle way. If you’re not on the lookout (and I always am!), you might just miss it.

Though all the better to sneak into your subconscious, worming and niggling and prodding you to think about the face on your plate or the skin on your back … to see them as someones rather than somethings, more alike than different from the dog snuggled up next to you or fast asleep at your feet.

2017-07-14 - O-Ren Hearts Fetch - 0009 [flickr]

Full disclosure: In between bites of spider trappings, Rennie assisted me in writing this review.
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I especially loved Bejia’s manifesto, “I am not a stuffed animal,” which surreptitiously introduces readers to the idea of intersectionality: “It’s kind of like feminism, but for dogs.” That line (along with countless others) literally had me squealing for joy. Little Beija-Boo – is she a shar pei-doxy mix? corgi and beagle? who knows! – is adorable and tubby, even as she’s telling you to back the fuck off.

I could go on and on – about the many weird parallels between Georges’s life and mine; about how I see pieces of Bejia in my own dogs; about the many ways, both large and small, that my loved ones and I have adapted our everyday routines and very existences to better accommodate our four-legged family members – but suffice it to say that Fetch is a must-read for anyone who’s ever loved (and lost) a dog (though you may want to wait until the loss isn’t quite so fresh – the ending is freaking brutal).

Ditto: anyone who just likes good storytelling or quirky artwork. I know I’ve focused on the nonhumans for most of my review – hey, that’s how I do – but even those rare scenes sans doggos are beautifully rendered and engaging.

In summary: Fetch is easily my favorite book of 2017 thus far, graphic novel or no.

Aaaaand just in case the previous 1,000 words didn’t convince you, here are a few of my favorite panels to help seal the deal.

(That last one? So charming that it displaced foster doggy as the background on my desktop. Temporarily, but still.)

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Book Review: History Is All You Left Me, Adam Silvera (2017)

Monday, January 16th, 2017

“history is how we get to keep him.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

You’re still alive in alternate universes, Theo, but I live in the real world, where this morning you’re having an open-casket funeral. I know you’re out there, listening. And you should know I’m really pissed because you swore you would never die and yet here we are. It hurts even more because this isn’t the first promise you’ve broken.

I’m a seventeen-year-old grieving his favorite person.

We first meet Griffin Jennings on Monday, November 20th, 2016. It’s been exactly one week since his best friend and ex-boyfriend Theo McIntyre died: drowned in the Pacific Ocean while his new love, Jackson Wright, watched helplessly from the shore. Now Theo’s East Coast/West Coast lives are about to collide – over his casket, no less – as Jackson and Griffin meet for the first time at his funeral. Only things don’t play out exactly how you’d think.

Theo was most of Griffin’s firsts: first date, first kiss, first time, first love. Childhood friends, they came out to each on the L train; weeks later, they came out to their parents, together. (This was a happy scene, the sort of which all LGBTQ kids deserve.) Griffin always knew that he’d have to say goodbye to Theo, who’s one year older/ahead of him in high school – but his early admission to the animation program at Santa Monica College sure upended the timeline. Griff broke up with Theo the day before he left, thinking he’d spare himself the pain of eventually becoming the dumpee – and, just two months later, Theo began seeing Jackson. Drama, heartbreak, passive-aggressive sniping, and betrayal ensue.

We’ve all been there before. Except Theo ups and dies before any of it can be resolved, and Griffin and Jackson (not to mention Wade, the third member of the Manhattan squad) are left to sort through the detritus of a life too shortly lived.

To complicate matters further, Griffin suffers from OCD – mostly manifested in directions (left is good) and numbers (odd is bad) – which is getting progressively worse in Theo’s absence and death.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Forever in My Heart: A Grief Journal, Tanya Carroll Richardson (2016)

Friday, December 9th, 2016

Probably fair to categorize this grief journal as “nondenominational Christian with a New Age vibe.”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads.)

In a little over three years, I lost four rescue dogs (out of seven) and a grandmother (just two!). Needless to say, this decade is not getting off to the greatest start. When I saw a copy of Tanya Carroll Richardson’s Forever in My Heart: A Grief Journal up for grabs on Goodreads, I threw my name in the hat. I’m addicted to guided journals, and this one seemed especially timely for me. Even though it’s clearly meant for humans, I thought that maybe – with a few tweaks and a generous amount of creative interpretation – I could adapt it for use it for my forever dog/soul mate/daemon Kaylee.

Forever in My Heart is very thorough and detailed, which I didn’t entirely expect; so many of the guided journals I’ve tried are vague bordering on terse. Each page is packed with several (between two and four) prompts; some sentences have multiple fill-in-the-blanks, so it’s hard to give an accurate count. You’re provided with a few lines to answer; the exact number kind of depends on the nature of the prompt.

2016-10-06 - Forever in My Heart - 0004 [flickr]

A few of my favorite prompts:

– A funny memory of you I recently laughed about with someone
– I think of you especially during this time of day because
– I had this really crazy, silly dream about you since you passed on
– Your passing inspired me to make some positive changes in my life, like
– A book I read or a TV show I saw since you died that reminded me of you
– My favorite way you used to show me you love me

The journal is a good size, 8 3/4″ x 5 3/4″. Anything smaller and it can be difficult to write in. (Think: the thick, mass market paperback-sized design preferred by PotterStyle.) The lines are maybe a tick larger than college ruled; big enough to work with, but not large enough that they waste space. The paper isn’t super-thick, but it’s substantial enough that a standard ballpoint pen isn’t likely to bleed through.

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The journal is a little more religious than I anticipated, given the book’s synopsis on Goodreads. I think it’d be fair to call it nondenominational Christian with a New Age vibe; there are lots of references to heaven, prayer, spirits, and angels. I’m an atheist, so this isn’t really my jam, but I’m used to overlooking and compartmentalizing. Books on death and dying tend to have some degree of religiosity built in, so.

Even so, this one really gave me a workout: There’s a whole chapter called “You are forever in my heart…but you are also in Heaven, and I am trusting that’s where you’re meant to be.” Contrast this with the previous chapter, “You are forever in my heart…and that’s why I can still feel you here with me,” which I vastly prefer. (Also, all the angel talk? Totally caught me off guard.)

More bothersome is that some of the prompts sound an awful lot like the well-meaning but insensitive platitudes so often directed at the recently bereaved: “She’s in a better place.” “At least he isn’t suffering anymore.” “She’s with God in Heaven now.” All the mindless sayings that minimize, dismiss, and erase the pain, grief, and loss you’re all but drowning under. (A better opening? “Tell me about him.” Listen, don’t lecture.)

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Overall I think the journal’s okay; it’s not what I would have chosen for myself, if I’d been shopping around for one, but it’s not the worst. More religious folks will probably warm up to it more than I did. Probably not the best choice for a beloved nonhuman friend, but I’m gonna make it work.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: A Robot in the Garden, Deborah Install (2016)

Friday, June 24th, 2016

Johnny Five is alive!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss/NetGalley.)

Amy curled her lip. “Ben, it’s a robot, it doesn’t have feelings. It doesn’t care where it is or how broken it is. And this talk about you teaching it…you can’t even get it to talk properly. Wouldn’t you be better off doing something more productive?”

“Funny, ain’t it, the way we apply human qualities to these machines? People can get real attached to them. We have a cemetery just down the road for folks who’ve lost their androids.”

Thirty-four-year-old Ben Chambers is in a bit of a rut. By which I mean a gaping, stretching chasm from which escape seems impossible. His parents died six years ago – adventurous adrenaline junkies in their retirement, they perished when the light aircraft they were flying hit a bird and crashed – and Ben’s been struggling with grief and depression ever since.

After their deaths, his studies faltered, and he was asked to take a leave of absence from the veterinary program he was enrolled in. Luckily, his parents left Ben his childhood home and a large chunk of money to live on; but this only enabled his chronic unemployment and general aimlessness. His wife Amy, a successful attorney, is understandably fed up; Ben doesn’t even try to pull his own weight in the form of household chores. Tang is just the straw that broke their marriage’s back.

When a beaten-up robot suddenly appears in their back garden one September morning, Ben fixates on him. (Ben is certain he’s a He, even if robots don’t have genders as such.) He’s convinced that “acrid Tang” – “Tang” for short – is special and in need of saving. Among the bolts and rivets and squat boxes that make up Tang’s body, Ben finds a broken cylinder, slowly but surely leaking fluid, in Tang’s chest – right about where his heart would be. Armed just with a few partial inscriptions on Tang’s undercarriage, Ben resolves to find Tang’s creator before the cylinder runs dry and Tang stops working.

(More below the fold…)