A librarian, on a book tour to meet a murder writer, gets embroiled in murders. And solves the mystery with...books!
Going to the ends of the earth (in this case, the Falklands) to write a novel in isolation, with no distractions, sounded like the kind of thing I might do (except for the novel part), which is why I was interested in reading Bleaker Island. Despite a charming start and some genuinely laugh out loud moments, I wasn't consistently invested in Stevens's account of her writing (and romantic) life. I don't read many contemporary memoirs because they can feel self-indulgent, and there's been such a boom in them that it makes me wonder whose lives warrant a whole book. Though Stevens is, in the end, self-aware about her self-indulgence, it doesn't make the book more appealing to me.
In addition, I didn't understand why she included a few of her short stories. The novel excerpts made more sense, though I felt they might have been integrated better, perhaps in smaller chunks?
Fantasy books aren't the only stories with magic. In The Art of Escaping, Mattie shows that determination, grit, and the magic of picking a lock are just as interesting as wizards, dragons, and far-away lands.
I know that everyone is familiar with Houdini and his infamous stunts, but Mattie and her mentor Miyu shatter the theatrics of Houdini in order to show the true danger of stage "magic". Mattie's obsession with escapology brought the darker side of magic to real life. It is easy to watch an escape artist or magician from the safety of the audience, but Callahan brought the readers up close and personal, literally under the water with Mattie. This view of escapology contrasts to the innocence of card tricks and pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Instead of the flashy magic associated with sleight of hand, I was intrigued by the stakes of escapology and those willing to risk their lives for its sake.
The focus on Mattie as a escape artist also flips stereotypes of magic performance since she is the star of the show and not merely the eye-candy assistant. Much to my delight, her magic didn't depend on romance. Mattie is a strong, independent woman who doesn't need a man to be extraordinary. The raw diary entries incorporated throughout the story also worked to defy the facade of magic. She was a courageous escapologist, but she was also a person with magic of her own.
Will's development as a character was also strong as he dealt with coming out in the hostile environment of high school. He was a round character who was not only gay, but also an amazing friend, a magical assistant, a witty voice of reason, and a protagonist in his own right. Will was not a side character pushed off to the side, but a main character with just as much page-time and depth as Mattie.
Even though I loved the twist on magic and the intricacies of escapology, the execution of the ideas could have been better.
The book is told in dual perspectives through the voices of Mattie and Will, which I do not think was necessary. Both characters had unique voices and I loved the differentiation in style, but they narrated many of the same events. While I mostly enjoyed both perspectives, there were times when I felt that I was getting the same story over again. It also didn't help that the plot was a little bit predictable, which emphasized the repetition even more. Some fragments of the timeline were told more than once, but there were also weeks and weeks of the time line that were glossed over (like the entirety of their high school experience).
On the whole, I enjoyed the vibrant voice and unique metaphors that Callahan used to create the atmosphere of high school. There weren't any of the same old cliches, but the style tended to exaggerate for the sake of uniqueness. Specifically, Will's voice tried too hard at points to be "cool" and "hipster" with the retro references. Instead of incorporating a few vintage phrases, at times he spoke in the full vernacular of the 1920's, which teenagers are not normally apt to do.
Recommended for: fans of Harry Houdini (or the cinematic masterpiece Now You See Me), fantasy fans looking to explore contemporary, contemporary fans looking for a little bit of magic, those looking for LGBT+ representation in a high school setting
<b>This review and other bookish shenanigans can be found on my original blog, <a href="http://4evercrazyforya.blogspot.com/">Crazy for YA</a>.</b>
Red-haired, freckle-faced, green-eyed Markus worries about things that bother many middle-school boys: When will my body fill out? When will my voice lower? When will I grow body hair? He wants puberty to hurry up and do its job so he can hang with the cool kids. He doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about his grandmother's experiences during the Holocaust. But when three of the A-listers ask him to work with them on their social studies Holocaust project, he sees his chance. He knows they want him on their team because of his ailing grandmother, who has a tattoo on her arm from her time in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. He reluctantly decides to talk to her. When Markus asks her about her time in Auschwitz, she violently refuses to discuss it. Her over-the-top reaction shocks Markus, and he's torn between his loyalty to her and the peer pressure at school. No matter what, though, he doesn't want to miss his chance to improve his social status. When a classmate announces that his project will prove that the Holocaust never happened, Markus pictures his old, sick grandmother in the nursing home, and he vows to disprove the student’s claim. A voice from the past accuses his grandmother of crimes during the Holocaust, and Markus’s world quickly spirals out of control. Then, because of Markus's well-intentioned effort to find someone who knew his grandmother during the war, a stranger who knew her in Auschwitz surfaces with shocking and mysterious secrets, and Markus has to come to an entirely new understanding of what the truth actually is. Suddenly, the Holocaust is not just a chapter in his history book...it's his life.
To date, thirteen year old Markus has never had a strong interest in hearing his Oma's (grandmother) stories regarding her Holocaust experiences. She's never gone into much detail about that time in her life anyway, tending to hesitate or change the subject whenever the topic is broached. But when three of the most popular kids in school ask him to team up with them on their Holocaust project, Markus is suddenly looking at Oma in a new light! Being a newly minted teenager, Markus has been having a tough time on the puberty front. Already battling through years of ridicule for being a ginger, now he's got the fun of voice cracking on top of that. But if he gets in with the popular kids, his school rep might have a chance at being saved.
He runs into a problem though: when Markus approaches her to start what he believes will be a series of in-depth sit-down conversations, his grandmother is now tight-lipped. In fact, Markus is shocked at her downright violent response when he puts forth a question about Auschwitz.
Some days later, when Markus informs Oma that one of his classmates is planning on doing a denier stance (arguing that it never happened) on the Holocaust, she decides it's time to face these skeptics once and for all and share her story. Additionally, Markus finds an online support group for Holocaust survivors and gets the idea that he might be able to track someone down who knew Oma (Sarah Goldberg) during that time, offering additional support & credence to the details of her account.
Things get progressively more and more sticky the more time Markus spends on the online support group. His inquiries get a hit and culminate in the arrival of a mystery man who shows up at the nursing home where Sarah lives, claiming he definitely remembers her from Auschwitz. This progresses into the US Justice Department getting wind of this meeting and sending federal agents out to investigate. Now the agents are suspicious that Sarah is hiding some incriminating truths about her past. Because there is no statute of limitations on war crimes, these are serious allegations indeed. Soon enough, the media gets involved, which then leads to protestors parking themselves outside the nursing home, picketing and yelling that their good town is harboring war criminals!
It is at this point in the story that the reader, through the actions being described to them, is asked to ponder on the dangers of history repeating itself, the potential ruination that can come to a person's life if you put more faith in what you HEAR versus what you KNOW to be true. These scenes also offer strong social commentary on the power of media in general, a topic that is all too relevant in todays' world! Think about it, how much spin is put on the news stories being presented to you? What facts are conveniently left out to further one side's agenda? What's the possibly irreparable damage someone's life might suffer as a result of this selective presentation of facts?
After awhile, Oma Sarah has just had enough. All of a sudden she takes on this mood of "Fine, you want to know the story, HERE IT IS" and just lays everything out there. Getting her number tattoo. How her face became permanent scarred on one side. Why all the secrets and shadiness around her story.... the last 50 pages or so of this book felt just chock full of twists and turns and revelations!
There may be readers that don't agree with or aren't satisfied with the truth of Oma's story, the decisions she made that helped her to survive. Still, her story brings forth an important message that all readers will benefit to take in. It's presented with a Holocaust theme, but the reader can connect with it a number of different ways... and that's the topic of how we personally identify ourselves (or what we identify with) and the complexity of that. The lifelong journey behind it. Oma explains to readers that an identification number is just that --- a number --- it does NOT define your soul's identity. You are an individual, full of unique dreams, goals, interests, loves... not a number forced upon you with the calculated intent to make you feel blurred, lost in a crowd, easily forgettable. As one line in the book says, "It's what we DO with our lives that gives us identity."
I saw some similarities in theme and feel between this book and The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen, mostly through the involvement of a teen getting to know their Holocaust-surviving grandmother on a much deeper level. Though both novels might incorporated similar themes and settings, they are each unique in their storytelling presentation.
I struggled some with connecting with Markus, particularly with the way he treated his "uncool" friends -- a gay guy and a black girl. I was definitely taken aback with his comment about his female friend, "I defended her and her stout behind all these years."... whoa, wait, so did he think he was doing them a FAVOR, being a friend to "the gay guy and the token black girl"... what was that about?! Speaking of the kids in this book, I was a little disappointed with the dialogue in general. The story is supposed to take place in a modern day school setting for the most part, but the choice of wording for the school kids had them sounding more like some 1970s kids movie rather than today's world. Outside of the school setting though, Markus and his mother had a very sweet, lighthearted mother-son banter between them that was fun to read.
A note to parents and educators: though this is marketed to the middle-grade and YA reader, there is healthy dose of profanity throughout the book, so you may want to do a discretionary read-through if you have concerns about such things.
FTC Disclaimer: Reading Addiction Book Tours kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.
* I highly recommend checking out the documentary Prisoner Number A26188: Henia Bryer (Holocaust Survivor Documentary) by Timeline World History Documentaries, currently free to watch on Youtube. Tragic story but the film is SO well done!
Thomas McNulty, aged barely seventeen and having fled the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s. With his brother in arms, John Cole, Thomas goes on to fight in the Indian Wars—against the Sioux and the Yurok—and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, the men find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in. Moving from the plains of Wyoming to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. An intensely poignant story of two men and the makeshift family they create with a young Sioux girl, Winona, Days Without End is a fresh and haunting portrait of the most fateful years in American history and is a novel never to be forgotten.
Just after his 17th birthday, Thomas McNulty and his friend, John Cole, decide to enlist in the US Army as a way to escape their bleak home lives. This decision takes them through service during the Indian and Civil Wars. While they may have anticipated great adventures, they had no way of knowing the horrors of war that awaited them.
The first half of the novel focuses on the Indian War years, as the boys not only learn basic soldiering, but also how to survive all the different types of weather and terrain as they march or ride across the country. Mother Nature brings them battles of her own in the form of vicious heat over the flatlands, freezing winters in camps with beyond meager supplies, fever epidemics, and food shortages (even the horses are starving to death).
Racism of the day is another strong theme in this work. Though not written as one of the novel's racist characters himself, Thomas points out to the reader various examples he sees throughout the course of his life. For one, an Army acquaintance of Thomas and John's falls in love with an Ogalala Sioux woman, fathers a son with her. Thomas's response to the news: "I guess love laughs at history a little." Then there's John himself, who is part Native American... apparently that "part" is visible enough in his appearance for him to get a dose of hate speech directed his way.
We were two wood shavings of humanity in a rough world.. (Thomas re: him and John)... You had to love John Cole for what he chose never to say. He said plenty of the useful stuff.
There's also the matter of Thomas and his friends working at a theater between tours of duty, a job that occasionally has them doing minstrel shows in blackface. I'd also mention that there is a description near the end of the book where the men remember coming upon 30 black people who had recently been hanged together. I warn you, this description is mildly graphic.
In truth, there's a strong dose of graphic material throughout the whole novel. Chapter 2 is mostly about hunting, killing, and cutting up buffalo. Chapter 3 focuses on massacring Indians. The gritty, graphic nature of the writing only increases as you approach the closing chapters of the story.
Chapter 12 starts the Civil War experiences, sending Thomas and John to Boston, Massachusetts for training. There Thomas meets a fellow Irish immigrant. They swap stories of their "coming over" experience on the boats, giving the reader a grim look at the reality of what families risked to get here for the chance at a new life. It is through this meeting that Thomas ponders on the realization of just how often Irish men were treated like total scum... until the Army needed soldiers for their causes.
The story is told in Thomas's first person perspective, but as an older man now retired and living in Tennessee, looking back on his wild youth. Said youth starts in Ireland, but (after he loses his entire family) soon brings him to the US as a teenage immigrant, eventually deciding to settle in Missouri. If you struggle with reading stories written in dialects, I warn you that this one is written in a kind of "country boy" voice that only gets stronger as your reading progresses. There's also a healthy dose of cursing -- some used just as a matter of speech, some as actual intended profanity in the situation.
Thomas also describes what it was like being a gay man -- his lover being his friend John -- in this era, with a penchant for cross dressing. Every so often we also get a glimpse of his sassiness, such as his thoughts on his short stature: "I'm a little man right enough but maybe the best dagger is a short one sometimes." (Meanwhile, John is 6'3.)
The plot didn't keep my attention all that well. There is something to Barry's writing that I could appreciate. The verbiage itself is solid enough, Thomas gives the reader a good laugh here and there, there are lots of pretty lines -- such as "our breath is flowing out like lonesome flowers that die on the air" -- but something was still lacking. I just didn't find myself emotionally committing to these characters, as far as their life stories go. What I do give points for are the themes / topics Barry leaves you to ponder on, such as racism of the era, the topic of immigration, or my favorite, the dichotomy that extends to exist within the Irish spirit. The sweetness vs. the hellfire. There's a whole passage on this that really rang true with me and had me nodding in recognition!