The Monday Book: UNWIND by Neal Shusterman

So yeah, most readers have a secret fondness for at least one area of YA fiction. Mine is dystopians and fantasy. And frankly, as far as I can tell, these days all YA fantasy IS dystopian.

I picked up UNWIND by Neal Shusterman to shelve it, from a box that came in for trade. And got intrigued with the premise on the back cover, about the last American war (The Heartland War) being fought over reproductive rights. And how now life begins at conception but from 13-18 a child can  be “unwound,” body parts farmed out for all sorts of operations for all sorts of reasons. It’s a boon to the economy and really a good deal for everyone except the Unwound Kids.

And it all goes from there. The book follows three kids, one whose parents give up on him, one a ward of the state, and one a tithe, from a family who has ten kids. Shusterman actually begins the four sections of this novel with quotes from ebay, denying someone the right to sell his soul (because if it doesn’t exist it’s fraud, and if it does exist it’s body parts, which they don’t allow), another about Ukranian orphans being organ harvested in 2003 (mass grave found outside the orphanage and shut down after outrage) and a third about Einstein and consciousness.

Shusterman’s book is intended to be more terrifying than gross. It goes for the jugular. And of course it has parts that just don’t hold up, but one really needs to enter this dystopia with a little willing suspension of disbelief, or what’s the point? And once you have, it’s a lot like reading Sheri Tepper. The exquisite sarcasm crafted so carefully in the words of those who escape Unwinding, reflecting back the odd slogans about bodies and rights, is funny. Dark, but funny.

It’s a creepy book, but well-plotted, with solid characters that don’t just serve as straw men. You know the people in this novel, which makes it all the more disturbing how some of them meet their end.

Two thumbs up (both still attached, thanks) for UNWIND.

2 Comments

Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, post-apocalypse fiction, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing, YA fiction

To See Ourselves…

Jack and I have done a lot of festival receptions over the years. Usually attendees are divided into two groups: those who are just so super-excited to be there, and those who are not.

The fun part comes when you have these two types meshed into one person, working the room but pretending to be bored with the whole thing. As we did awhile back, watching two female authors at a reception duke it out for “Queen of the Room.”

They were wearing similar dresses, for a start—which is never a good start. But things were unequal, because the California blond had on high heels, and sunglasses atop her head holding back her hair, Classic Hollywood style.

Since we were in North Carolina, the look was somewhat different from the rest of the room, but it worked for her. Still, the piece de resistance was her watch, a double strand of pearls in its band, diamonds shimmering from the face. She turned it to catch the light as she spoke to everyone who came near the wine table (which she’d strategically claimed as the location of her court on arrival) flopping an insouciant hand to accent a point tossed off as she dominated her conversation clutch.

The clutch consisted of a male sponsor, a female fan, and the second would-be-queen—who was working hard to wrest the conversation from California Girl because she had been the first to position herself at the wine table, and CG had cleverly turned her by speaking as she poured herself a glass, claiming the coveted conversational dominance spot. But Queen II was older, and therefore able to rely more on wit and treachery than spiked heels. As the fan asked CG a question, face turned adoringly upward (everyone has to look up to someone wearing 8-inch heels) Q2 took a step forward and broke the circle. Suddenly FanGirl was looking at Q2 who blithely gave a smiling answer to the question as she wedged back into the wine table hot spot, forcing FanGirl back a few inches.

The male sponsor, sensing a chance to close in, moved across to stand on the other side of CG and she had to turn her head to answer him. Two new conversations formed, but CG was visibly sore about this. As FanGirl continued to enjoy her conversation with Q2 and Mr. Sponsor moved in for the kill, CG, who didn’t seem to know anyone else in the room, flashed a bright smile at a cute guy in a polo shirt, who’d stopped to score some cantaloupe from the table.

Fruit forgotten, he turned and began speaking to CG. Q2, observing, opened her profile with one deft grapevine step, and voila, FanGirl, CG, Polo Cutey, and Q2 were now in a line of conversation that excluded Mr. Sponsor. The dueling queens each turned half profile to Cutey, and FanGirl wandered off as Cutey—who may or may not have known anything about the fiction these women had written—did his best to hang on for the ride. Which was short, for the two queens, perhaps tired of the dance of passive aggression, now began to speak to one another. In honeyed tones. With fluttering eyelashes and much pressing of hands to bosoms. I’m sure their lips read “bless your heart” at one point—which didn’t really work for CG, but hey, who’s to judge? Cutey, his task completed, buzzed away like a drone driven from the hive after mating season.

Now lest you think this vignette harsh, remember, I’m an ethnographer who people watches for fun.  The whole evening felt like watching a television show in which I also played a role. Someone watching me would have seen a woman with frizzy hair in too-casual clothes cheerfully standing in the corner sipping a glass (ok, two) of the (very excellent) red wine provided for the occasion, soaking it all in. The ambiance, not the wine.

The room was crowded with authors making pitches, marketers who came up to talk to me because I own a bookstore, sponsors floating like butterflies among the guests, pouring wine and inquiring whether we were having a good time. The queen-women were just doing their jobs as authors, and if a bit of competition entered the body language, it’s only to be expected. They were oblivious to all else in the crowded room, and pretty much the rest of the authors were working too hard to notice them. I don’t know who they were. But Burns was right: it would be a true gift to see ourselves as others see us.

A toast to authors and receptions everywhere please. *raises glass*

Leave a comment

Filed under Big Stone Gap, Downton Abbey, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing

Old World, New World, My World

It’s often only when you’re pulled away at short notice, with many loose ends left dangling, that you realize how many real friends you have. When my sister’s funeral summoned me to Scotland, I was worried that even with Internet availability and my trusty laptop, there were chores that folk at home just wouldn’t know needed to be dealt with, things the bookstore required that wouldn’t get done.

With the evidence of over a hundred messages of condolence and many more FaceBook ‘likes’, and with a high proportion from around here, I should have known better. It’s a guy thing, I guess.

Of course Wendy bore the brunt of it and cheerfully juggled duties while also dealing with a writing deadline and the current exceptional stress of her day job at GMEC–not to mention grabbing the opportunity to ‘launder’ a fourteen count kitten rescue through the store while I was away. I could also depend on the usual emergency cover by the heroic James, Kelley, Kody, Elizabeth and Mark and my exceptional ‘soul-mates’ Tony and Anne.

This core group of people that are a kind of loyal bookstore family (Wendy is family, of course, but you catch my drift) each rallied round and in whatever way they could. This reduced my panic to a bearable level and let me concentrate on family and friends at a time that, although predicated on sadness, also involved a lot of reconnecting with family and friends.

My final evening in Scotland before returning home was an invite for dinner with one of my oldest friends. My former singing partner Barbara had asked me to her and her husband Oliver’s new apartment in Edinburgh along with another couple of friends and her son Archie, who did the catering. Despite having just moved in and with only half the rooms habitable, we all sat down to a relaxed and memorable meal, punctuated with lots of memories of the folk and jazz scenes in Dunfermline, where we had all grown up. In the middle of the evening Barbara began to describe her visit to Big Stone Gap two years ago with her husband Oliver when she headlined our Celtic festival. She spoke of Kelley and Sam and their kids, describing Kelley as “a kind of female rugby character, someone you felt you should not mess with but who has a kind heart.” She depicted life in the bookstore (“kittens everywhere, all adorable”) and reminisced on their visit to Carter Fold (“the dancing, such a community”) I realized that I’m exceptionally lucky. Because I have another extended family back in Scotland, some of whom have visited here and made the connection. I consider myself doubly blessed!

My dearest wish would have been for ‘Big Sis’ Margaret to come over, visit with us and become part of that bigger family, just like my niece Vicki and her daughter Elle.

I had been plotting, but it wasn’t to be – – – Time waits for nothing. Enjoy your family, biological and chosen, while you have them. They are a blessing.

Leave a comment

Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, shopsitting, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

Saint Beth visits the Virgin Vault

Long story short, Jack is in Scotland, which means I’m throwing away things he won’t miss when he returns, and intaking kittens at an exponential rate.

It’s a marriage thing.

Happily, this Wednesday six of our adult cats are going to an urban no-kill shelter that works with rural rescuers. Even more happily, those not already spayed or neutered don’t have to be, because they have a vet who volunteers these services. Which is a big help on our pocketbook here as my crochet time dwindles for fundraising.

Not, I hasten to point out, that our vet Saint Beth at Powell Valley Animal Hospital is any slouch in the volunteer and low-cost department. She has done stuff for us that defies job description. Just follow Miss Pogo on Facebook to see some of the care Saint Beth provides.

Or feast your eyes on these photos, snapped Friday when Beth arrived with reinforcements – Kendra and Meghan from the Pretty Nurses Brigade – to give the unspayed girls we have in our garage their rabies shots. (We have nicknamed the garage the Virgin Vault, as Fiona and Salome are sojourning there until their Wednesday departure.)

Jack ASSURED me before he left for Scotland that he had “cleaned out” the garage so it could provide overflow for kittens during the summer tsunami.

When a man says he’s cleaned something out, he seems to mean that he’s removed everything from it that is of no use to him. Nothing about stacking, ordering, putting lids back on, etc.

Fair enough. It’s a marriage thing.

So Beth and her team entered a maze of chairs waiting to be caned, empty boxes waiting for who knows what, paint waiting to have its lids put back on, litter boxes waiting for target practice, and two girl cats hiding somewhere in the midst of it all.

Fortunately, Kelley’s son Asher was on hand. Being about 4’3″ and 65 pounds, plus a natural cat whisperer, he quickly found the cats hiding in their respective corners, explained that nothing bad was going to happen, and soon had them in arms. The ladies took their shots like champs, and I grabbed Beth’s phone and took a few shots, too. Heh heh heh.

IMG_2567

Fiona is spotted under a work bench.IMG_2568

Kendra watches cheerfully as Beth and Fiona assume the respective positions.IMG_2569

Kelley and Meghan watch from an even more distant position.IMG_2572

Note Asher under the table, having a heart to heart with Fiona. She came willingly.

IMG_2574

Beth’s fieldwork technique is to be admired.IMG_2575

Asher offers Fiona reassurance as the jab is quickly accomplished.IMG_2576

And to the victor….IMG_2577Victors, actually. Fiona and Salome head out Wednesday with six other cats, for happy safe lives as pampered pets.

7 Comments

Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, humor, Hunger Games, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

Little is the Real Big

Jack is in Scotland for his sister’s funeral (and thank you all for the many kind thoughts and well wishes you have sent). In place of his guest blog, let me offer a commencement speech forwarded by my editor at St. Martin’s Press, the amazing and astute Nichole.

We like ideas that mirror our own, of course, and Nichole and I share a belief that little has always been the real big. The best stories are the little ones we share with each other that bind us together; the stories that happen to us individually may seem small, but they make up the big picture of human existence. Or something like that. I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but thanks Nichole for sharing this speech. It’s lovely, affirming, inspiring, and a tiny indictment all at the same time.

Little is the real big. Go for it, ye writers, storytellers, and poets all!

FULL TRANSCRIPT: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Commencement Speech at UPenn

1 Comment

Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, publishing, reading, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing

The Monday Book: THE COMFORT OF LIES by Randy Susan Myers

This book was in a “Free books” bin at Asheville Public Library. I’d liked her earlier book The Murderer’s Daughters so snagged it. This one is bigger in its character list and plot maneuvers, but like her others, character drives plot. Which is cool.

The two couples and the birth mom/floater in this book are really well drawn. You know them. And you can kind of guess what they’re going to do, but reading how they do it goes from heartbreaking to yelling at the pages “NO DON’T” to laughing because it’s just so funny, what they say as they screw up their own lives.

Dark comedy, or the comedy of human errors, maybe. The premise is that married man Nathan has an affair with Tia, then goes back to his wife. Tia adopts out the resultant daughter, but Nathan’s wife finds out when she opens a letter addressed to her husband. And then finds the adoptive parents, and it just goes kablooey from there. This is a finely chiseled portrait of marriages falling apart and people making choices based on very real issues, some of them rather like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

If you like the genre of fiction Brits call “aga saga,” literate portraits of families and people teetering at the edge of crisis, you’ll love The Comfort of Lies.

2 Comments

Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Life reflections, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, VA, writing

Because Nothing Clears the Air like a good Murder

May 2016 murder 054Last fall when Big Stone was going crazy on itself, we got a nasty letter from the town council saying our lawn was out of order with town order and we’d be fined if we didn’t fix it. Jack called the town planner out, and the poor lad looked things over and said, “Well, this is embarrassing. The part that’s out of order is the part we were supposed to be cutting.” The next day some guys came and cut the verge.

But a couple of days later, a town councilor who shall remain nameless visited the bookstore for the first time in our ten-year-history and offered town resources to cut our herbarium and wildflowers down. “At no cost to you, and they can be here in ten minutes.” We explained again that the seeds had been a wedding present from the Quakers in Scotland, and the unplanned look was deliberate. The councilor left graciously–perhaps unconvinced, but graciously.

May 2016 murder 012Garden Gate, as we came to call it, was silly. Not malicious, just silly, involving misunderstandings about heirloom seeds and personal choice and English wooded gardens. So never mind about that. The fun part was planning a murder mystery based on it.

Heh heh heh.

Fourteen gardeners gathered last night to provide The New Bookstore Lawn, paid for by Big Stone’s new tourism fund. Unfortunately, half were Baptist and half Methodist. Plus we all know what happens when John Bach’s bookstore has more than a dozen people in it at a time…..

Sure enough, Paxton face planted into her salad, and the whodunnit was on. Perhaps it was the hats, or the cupcake-fueled sugar craze, but the attendees were never more in character, and the one-liners flowed faster than red wine. Poor little Girl Detective Margaret Bach coped with her helicopter mom and a room full of flower power as best May 2016 murder 019she could, while Swinger Jimmy begged her to smell his hands, and Grand Mother of Snap Dragons Peony Overbloom snarled at church lady Joy Abounder, “No shit you’re having an affair with my husband! Who do you think engineered it? He’s the most boring man I’ve ever known and you bedding him gives me more time in my flower beds!”

It was that kind of night. Hippie Hannah pepper sprayed people with No Terra oils. Town bimbo Poppy Upster sold secrets on Facebook. Halfway through, the murderer–confused by improvisation rather than scripting–confessed. The undaunted steel magnolias continued unearthing a blackmailing, secret bigamist marriage, and church funds embezzlement before the murderer was finally allowed to repeat her confession, backed by the olfactory powers of No Terra oils.

We blow off more steam this way, and it’s so fun. But bad news, good people of Big Stone: the toilet stays. It’s postmodern ironic. And full of petunias. The rest of us, we’re full of belly laughs from last night.toilet flowers

 

Leave a comment

Filed under bad writing, Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, Downton Abbey, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, writing