Category Archives: YA fiction

The Monday Book: A CASUALTY OF WAR by Charles Todd

This week’s Monday Book comes from writer Lizbeth Phillips, author of a pending YA fantasy series set in Abingdon.

A CASUALTY OF WAR toddby Charles Todd

(2017, Harper Collins/Wm Morrow, 377 pages)

ISBN 978-0-06-267878-2

The Great War: Living Casualties and Murder

 

Bess Crawford, a British nurse stationed at the front lines in France during the Great War, understands that the Armistice is just weeks away. Yet, the fighting continues.  On her way to the front line after her orders are changed, she meets an English officer, Captain Alan Travis, who is from a plantation on the island of Barbados in the Caribbean.  After a cup of tea, they part ways, but their brief encounter sets the novel into motion.

In the midst of all the gunfire, Captain Alan Travis arrives at a medical station with a bullet graze that skimmed his skull.  He tells her that his cousin, Lieutenant James Travis, shot him as Germans were fleeing Allied forces. He is sent back to the front lines after being patched up.

He returns in an ambulance days later with the same claim about his cousin.  Bess is curious about his unusual case and decides to investigate as the war comes to its end. She discovers the accused was dead when the shootings took place, but she cannot believe Captain Travis is lying or has lost his mind.  Who shot at him if it was not his cousin?  The war ends, and Captain Travis is evacuated to England to be treated at a brain injury hospital.

When she finds time, Bess travels to check on Captain Travis and discovers he is locked up for a brain injury and shell shock.  Everyone thinks he has lost his mind. Everyone but Bess.

Determined to prove the officer has not lost his mind, she follows leads to expose the truth about cousin James Travis, a complex family history, and greed that threatens the Captain’s life.  She will not stop until she has the truth, even when she puts herself in grave danger.

A Casualty of War drives the reader to the realization that the war is over, but the fighting at home has just begun.  Dark deeds committed under the umbrella of war have come home to England to haunt villages and to taunt Bess Crawford in hopes she will give up.

 

 

 

About the Reviewer:

Liz Phillips is a middle school educator and writer living in a forgotten corner of Southwest Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains. Contact her at lizphillips.author@gmail.com.

 

 

 

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The Monday Book: ARE THESE MY BASOOMAS I SEE BEFORE ME by Louise Rennison

basoomasLouise Rennison wrote ten books about her heroine Georgia Nicholson, a typical English teen who kept adults laughing. From titles like Away Laughing on a Fast Camel to Then He Ate My Boy Entrancers, she captured the worst of being 15 and made it funny.

I got the last of the Georgia books out of our local library a week or two ago, just to see if the magic held. Yep. Georgia utters lines like “Everyone is so obsessed with themselves nowadays that they have no time for me” and “He said, ‘Hi, gorgeous,’ which I think is nice. I admire honesty” with her usual bluster and bravado.

Plots aren’t really a part of the Georgia mystique, although this one is ostensibly about putting on a production of Hamlet at the all-girls Catholic school. Really, though, each book is about boys, snogging, lip gloss, and great shoes. It’s just that Rennison is soooooo funny you don’t care. Each book is written like a diary, with entries such as

12:01 “I hate him.”

12:04 “Hate is a bit strong. He just rang up and asked me out again.”

That kind of sappy, hormone-driven humor has always been Rennison’s strong point, but apparently when writing Basoomas, she knew she was finishing the series, because where she’d held back before, she didn’t this time. All her books had a gentleness toward sex and snogging that let teachers at least pretend they could be used in literature class, but Basoomas never misses a joke. Talking about the band finishing up practice, “I waited while the Lurve God put away his equipment. (Leave it.)”

Etc. etc. for a hundred pages or so. If you want some escapist, snort soda through your nose laugh out loud fun, pick up a Louise Rennison novel. She died in 2016, so enjoy the ten that are around, and have fun.

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The Monday Book: WE NEED NEW NAMES by NoViolet Bulawayo

bulawayoI got this book out of the library on CD to keep my company careening up and down I-81. It was very good company indeed.

The opening chapter was the winner in a short story contest, and sets up the whole theme of the book: the innocence of children observing the folly of white people trying to “save” Zimbabwe (and a neighboring country or two). The whole book is one long lesson in irony. Had she taken a different approach to the writing, Bulawayo’s book could have been non-fiction history. Or horror.

One of the best features of her writing is how the children who are its heroes run through the insanity around them. They find a woman who hung herself because she had AIDS, and take her shoes to buy bread because they’re hungry. They run to meet the NGO truck that passes out toy guns without food. They lament that they no longer go to school because life is so boring, then they play “funeral,” imitating the machete-hacking death of a local leader who encouraged the citizens of the “Paradise” refugee village to vote. When the BBC crew that covered the actual funeral find them playing this game, they are horrified.

Not the children. They are living their lives in the circumstances surrounding them, watching the crazy go down with the sweet, confused, triumphant, intent on getting food and staying out of trouble for the most part. Not unlike the adults around them, just a little less aware of the subtleties.

I actually recommend this novel to people writing about trauma, because it shows how the voices of children narrating terrible things can make space for people to read about it without blaming the narrator or the writer. (It takes the me-me-me out of memoir.) That said, I don’t want to cheapen what Bulawayo has accomplished here. More than using innocence to point out guilt, shame, horror, she’s written with an internal voice of honest brutality that comes off as gentle. Her writing is lovely. What she’s writing about is not, on two levels: the violence of a country coming apart, and the whiteness that haunts both its dissolution and its recovery.

In a quest to be “woke,” several of my friends have begun a challenge: reading books or watching movies that represent African or Caribbean voices without white saviors. Bulawayo’s books should be at the top of this list.

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Glam Elf Short Story Contest

You walk outside one evening, about a month after you’ve moved into your new house, and something shiny under a bush catches your eye. You lean down in the gloaming and pull up…this guy, face-planted in the dirt.

IMG_6114Yeah, nothing creepy ’bout that, right?

So I’m offering a prize, free copy of either my book on fostercare FALL OR FLY or some Celtic music CD (we have some good ones lying around) for the best short story explaining why the elf was there. 500-word limit, no minimum. Send your stories to jbeck69087@aol.com. Deadline is next Sunday, Feb. 24.

Winning story as judged by me will be published via this blog weekend after next. Have fun!

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That Moment When….

Last night Deborah and I did our book talk at Arlington Central Library, DC. We’ve done these many times; her memoir Counting Down is a deep dive into a personal adoption story, while my book Fall or Fly is journalism storytelling about the system as it operates in rural Appalachia. cover

We’ve fielded many questions during our 20+ talks together, and at almost every venue–library, bookstore, adoption expo, whatever it was–foster parents have been part of the audience. In Asheville’s Malaprops, a newly licensed couple sat on the front row, hoping their phone would go off during our time together. (It did, but it was a sales call. You never saw so many disappointed audience members.) At Quail Books in NC, parents asked about how to help their 11-year-old daughter communicate in safety with her birth mom.

Last night, two foster parents who had already read Fall or Fly expressed appreciation for its straight talk about two subjects the prep classes and society in general tend to avoid: love and money. One woman talked about how, the first time she held her first foster son in the middle of the night as he cried, she had a “freak out” moment because, “I had no idea who this kid was. He didn’t smell like my birth children, he didn’t react the way my birth children did, he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him, but here I am with him in his onesie and me in my robe, trying to tell him it’s okay and he can sleep safe. There’s nothing about those classes that can get you ready for this. Finally, I don’t feel like a failure. I know other people had this feeling too.”counting cover

Another foster mom was struggling with the fact that the adoption agency had presented her with a “perfect match,” but she and the teen girl were struggling to know one another. “No click, I guess, is the best way to put it. She was perfect on paper, everything I wanted. And like the woman in your book says, ‘You don’t get to choose your bio kids for the qualities you want most. They are yours, and your responsibility.’ So I don’t know, do I take it as a job now for a future of love, or will love never come?” She paused, then turned to me. “You have no idea how grateful I am that someone has talked about this in print.”

As a writer, there is nothing in the world so rewarding as hearing someone say that. That a person has found themselves in your words, identified and no longer alone, is the most energizing thing an author can hear. I’m glad you don’t feel so isolated any more, that the stories are out there, and that people are hearing them at last.

 

 

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The Monday Book: TELL THE WOLVES I’M HOME by Carol Rifka Brunt

wolvesThis is a complicated book. Its central character is 14 and has that bouncy back-and-forthness of wisdom and childhood coming out in lovely sentences like “That’s what being shy feels like. Like my skin is too thin, the light too bright. Like the best place I could possibly be is in a tunnel far under the cool, dark earth.”

The book is about June, her older sister Greta, their late Uncle Finn, and Finn’s partner Toby. Finn is June and Greta’s mother’s brother, and both adults are talented artists. But one is doing taxes and one is dying of AIDS. Like I said, it’s complicated.

The writing is beautiful. Some of the main points are kind of unbelievable–like two girls from Westchester can get up in the middle of the night and drive to Bellevue without their parents noticing, etc. But overall the emotional range of the characters and the plot driven by their needs, angers, and hopes holds up well. Everybody wants something. Not everybody can say what they want, or why they don’t want some of their other family members not to get what they want. That’s the point around which the action rotates.

If you like character-driven drama, you will love this book. If you remember ’80s AIDS–ignoring, exploring, deploring–you will love this book. If you have no patience with unresolved plot points, you might not. There are some loose threads left dangling, but as Stephen King says, “Life has a lot of those. Why shouldn’t writing?”

The weirdest part for me, but the part that many reviewers liked the most, is how the sisters used a painting their uncle had done of them to communicate with each other. Worth a lot on the art market, the girls deface it to send coded messages when words fail them. It was an intriguing take on the art book genre.

Overall, I love the way Brunt writes, and how intensely she draws her main characters. One paintbrush up for TELL THE WOLVES I’M HOME.

 

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The Monday TV show, which falls in a Tuesday this week…

800 wordsI’m sorry everyone; Jack is away and things are in transition here and getting the blog out has gotten weird. Sorry!

But I would like to recommend to you a Monday TV show about writing. We watch it on ACORN, so I’m not sure if it’s available on any other services. It’s called 800 WORDS and is about a columnist who moves his family from urban Sydney to rural Weld, New Zealand. The rural-urban split is fun, and the characters are wonderful: zany, sweet, and just this side of predictable.

My favorite part of the show is how George, the columnist whose wife died in a traffic accident, tops and tails the show with the column he’s writing. Remembering the days when I turned my life into fodder for newspaper columnizing (although I got 1,000 words, thank you) makes me laugh as he struggles to create metaphors for when life gets too silly: sex for fireworks, dolphins swimming away at sunset for loss. It’s hysterical.

And heartfelt. About the time you think, nah, it turns you to tears. The characters each struggle for something, want more than they have, are the stars of their own lives, and the ensemble casting makes a jumble of weirdos who mirror small towns everywhere.

I don’t know if it’s available outside of ACORN, but I highly recommend 800 Words for general viewing, and for writers. You’ll learn from it. And have fun in the process.

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