Monday, March 30, 2015

Book Review: "When We Were Animals" by Joshua Gaylord

Not all love stories are created equal. You can keep your Disney princesses and your happily ever afters, and I sincerely hope that you enjoy them. But they're just not what I want to read about sometimes. They're not author Joshua Gaylord's thing either, as evidenced by his new novel "When We Were Animals." This is not a soft, warm romance; this is a love story about corners and edges and the way your tongue feels when it scrapes across your teeth. I'm not talking about a Christian Gray-type romanticized story of abuse, either. This book is a poetic yet raw look at the brutality of human emotion, particularly of affection, underneath the pretty facades of suburban paradise.

Lumen, the main character and narrator, grew up in a small town with a unique secret: when local youth reach puberty, on the full moon of each month for approximately a year they "go breach." When teens breach they essentially succumb entirely to animal instinct, running wild around town naked and destroying anything they please, fighting, having sex and generally wreaking havoc. Everyone not in the throes of the breach, young and old, remains indoors and tries to ignore the screams and howls from outside, ignores the scratches and bruises on the neighborhood teens the next morning.

When the moon is not full, and during the days, breachers act normally. But going breach is seen within the community as a mark of maturity, and Lumen just doesn't seem to be able to convince her body to take that leap (which I found interesting as a reader, considering the calm, lucid prose with which she expresses herself, and how her behavior as a "good girl" seems much more mature than the breach-drunk antics of her peers). Lumen's lack of breach isn't entirely surprising though, since her mother never breached either. It was unheard-of for someone born and raised in town to avoid the breaching process. But Lumen finds herself in a sort of half-breach, joining her classmates outside on breach nights but retaining her reason and her sense of self. The result is that her narrative becomes half coming-of-age story, told from the perspective of a middle-aged suburban housewife, and half anthropological study of the culture of breaching in the town, as well as how relationships morph within the pack of breachers.

Lumen's unique situation, the in-between space that she occupies, does not go unnoticed by the breachers. Two boys in particular, Peter and Roy, take an interest in her for very specific and different reasons. Peter is a golden boy, every girl's dream, and sees her other-ness as something pure in need of cherishing and protection. She is above the rest of them, he tells her. Roy, on the other hand, perceives her as a physical manifestation of the breach itself, her outward calm and fascination with the breachers just a thin veneer over all the pure ferocity and brutality that defines the condition. And depending on whose company she's in, Lumen takes on to a certain extent the characteristics that each of the boys project onto her. This steers her life in different directions throughout the story but the reader sees Lumen eventually becoming more curious about the shadowed side of her, her ability to explore it without succumbing to it. She also wonders what's wrong with her, why she can never belong to one group or another. While this question is explored frequently and vehemently by her character, it is never answered. That is, in my opinion, the best possible way to handle the situation and author Gaylord did it perfectly.

All through the book, Lumen sees herself as her namesake: a space, an in-between state that both exists and does not, full of nothing but emptiness. She is defined by absence - the absence of her mother, of puberty, of any sense of self aside from what others project onto her. Her father's ideal of her as a "good girl," the influence of her classmates, and later on in life, what her husband expects of her are all things that she adopts like a hermit crab decorating its shell. Her sense of self, and the different definitions of a lumen, are something that Lumen explores throughout the book. The different meanings of a lumen lend significance to the different stages of her personality, of her evolution as an individual.

Lumen narrates the story as a grown woman, married to a nice normal man, a stay-at-home mother living in suburban bliss. She includes anecdotes from her present life not only to contrast it with her upbringing before and during the breach years, but also to illustrate the ways in which she is still unconsciously defined by it. Her seeming lack of empathy , of appreciation for social norms is perceived by those around her (including her husband) as a possible mental illness. But the reader, having heard her story in her own words, appreciates the elegance of Lumen's detached attitude, of her inability to comprehend why the roughened edges of life are things that people want to avoid, to obliterate. She doesn't love her husband or her son any less than the other wives around her; she just has a different perception of what love really is.

"When We Were Animals" by Joshua Gaylord is not a novel to be missed. Whether you're looking for a gripping protagonist, a strange and compelling tale, a bold depiction of humanity in all its animalistic glory, or a story that borders on magical realism in its lyrical prose, this book has it all. Plan on picking up a copy at your favorite local independent bookstore on April 21st. Mark your calendar, especially if like me, you enjoy an author with a singular gift for expressing spaces that are only defined by what goes on around them.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Teenage Reading Habits

A student buries herself in a book in the Shaw Library at the British Library of Political and Economic Science in 1964.

At a time in the book industry when the largest gains are happening in Young Adult and New Adult genres, it may be surprising to hear that teens aren't reading as much as they used to. Back in May, NPR ran a story on why that is. It cites a study done by the nonprofit organization Common Sense Media, and you can listen to it here. What could this means for the future of the reading community?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Book Review: "The Second Guard" by J.D. Vaughn

When an author writes a book with a specific moral or social agenda in mind, it can be difficult to work it into the story without sounding "preachy" or bashing the reader over the head with the message. The Second Guard, the first installment of a new series by J.D. Vaughn (actually a pen name for two writing partners), is a brilliant example of how when someone writes an exciting, engaging story that draws you into the world the author has created, the right messages flow through the words on their own.

Probably the simplest way to sum up this beautifully written book is to call it a retelling of "Mulan" set in pre-Columbian South America. But that's an oversimplified method at best of describing a story that contains adventure, family, battles, journeys, mystery, friendship and intrigue in masterfully balanced proportions. But instead of  woman warrior hiding who she really is, main character Tali is in her element training to become part of Tequende's elite Second Guard. It's through her that we're introduced to the kingdom's rich, unique history and culture.

"J.D. Vaughn" has created a detailed and idealistic but fascinating environment in which this story unfolds. It's a matriarchal society, peaceful in nature but defended by an elite fighting force as well as advantageous geographic location. In order to ensure a ready fighting force and a constant labor source as well, the second child of each family is sent to serve the crown as either a soldier or a servant for a period of several years. This practice is considered an honor to both families and children, especially in a world ravaged by war where Tequende is the only real bastion of peace and prosperity. This has turned it into a melting pot, full of peace-seeking refugees who have made it their home and adopted the culture there to start a new life.

Tali, recently inducted into training for the Second Guard after her 15th birthday, finds herself in the middle of a plot that could overthrow Tequende's queen and deliver the kingdom into the hands of warring neighbor kingdoms. But as only a soldier-in-training, she's powerless and in her investigation she must be wary not only of her restrictions as a newcomer but also regarding which of her military superiors may be in on the plot. She transcends the social divisions that exist between Tequende's guilds (Sun, Moon, and Earth) through a sincere love of her family and her kingdom. This theme of reciprocated trust between the rulers and the people, idealistic as it is, makes for a wonderful story setting and a great setup for the villains' motivation.

Tali is made to be a soldier. There's no doubt in anyone's mind of this, be they character or reader. But her self-confidence makes her unapproachable at times to others, a realization that she makes early on in the book. She evolves as she learns more about the mindset with which she was raised, that of a future soldier, and her new sense of self-awareness in relation to those around her, what unites them and what makes them different from one another, leads her to better appreciate the unique gifts that they each possess. It's a rewarding transformation to watch even from outside the events themselves, and was artfully written so that no single transformative moment turned her into a completely different person. Tali remains herself, with her own quirks and flaws; but she actively seeks to improve herself, sometimes regarding flaws of which she's aware and sometimes concerning things of which she was previously unaware. The inclusion of a smart, capable, extremely able deaf character was also an inspired way to include diversity as an everyday occurrence in the story.

Cultural tidbits at the beginnings of chapters, excerpts from a fictional historical text, add a lot to the book. They reveal the Tequendian values that motivate Tali and her friends as well as fleshing out the story world and making it more "real" for the reader. They also help to underscore the stereotypes and inequalities that still persist even in this seemingly idyllic society, the challenges that Tali overcomes in her struggle to prevent catastrophe. There's a heavy native South American influence at work throughout the book, from the types of agriculture described to the landscape and the names in the book. Even the book design and layout reflect the influence of pre-Columbian native peoples of places like Chile. The rich cultures of South America and their history seems oft overlooked when authors go hunting for world building resources, and I'm so incredibly pleased that this book's author(s) found inspiration in it and built a wonderful story around and out of it.

I was slightly frustrated by the way Tali, in the heat of the moment, goes off half-cocked in making accusations concerning royal intrigue. However, it wasn't a big stumbling block when I reminded myself that her character, while mature, is still only 15 years old. That, and reminding myself that I'm more accustomed to reading more intense, supremely complicated plots from authors like Jacqueline Carey or Patrick Rothfuss. This book isn't as complicated as theirs, but it has some twists, and it makes sense. Which is really the most important part when it comes down to it, in my opinion.

Overall, The Second Guard by J.D. Vaughn is a fantastic read and I am very much looking forward to the next installment as Tali and her friends make their way up in the world through mutual support and friendship. It will be released on April 14th and you can pre-order it now through your favorite local, independent bookstore.