Book Reviews, Young Adult

Review: Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Around her the workers were screaming out prayers and curses…. She herself was sobbing tearlessly….Her only prayer was still, “I don’t want to die.”

Oh, please, God, don’t let me die, she thought. I’ve never even had a chance to live.

Bella, newly arrived in New York from Italy, gets a job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. There, along with hundreds of other immigrants, she works long hours at a grueling job under terrible conditions. Yetta, a coworker from Russia, has been crusading for a union, and when factory conditions worsen, she helps workers rise up in a strike. Wealthy Jane learns of the plight of the workers and becomes involved with their cause.

Bella and Yetta are at work–and Jane is visiting the factory–on March 25, 1911, when a spark ignites some cloth and the building is engulfed in fire, leading to one of the worst workplace disasters ever.

Margaret Peterson Haddix draws on extensive historical research to bring the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire to tangible life through her thrilling story of Bella, Yetta, and Jane.

back cover of Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix

 

I recently watched a video about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that tore my heart out, so when I saw a book about it, of course, I had to do that to myself again.

That being said, this was a very well written book. After reading it I spent some time researching to see if this was a nonfiction book or at the very least based off of real people. It turns out that at the end of the book the author confirms that some aspects of it are fiction and that other aspects are nonfiction, and that she’ll leave it up to our imaginations to decide what happened and what didn’t happen. I loved that about this book. Although I’m sure the same exact characters didn’t exist and that things didn’t happen in the same exact way, a lot of what happened was probably similar.

The characters were people that I would’ve loved to know in real life, but there were also a few faults with each of them, in my opinion.

First off there is Bella, the Italian immigrant. I thought that her courage was amazing and her love for her family was spectacular. Her spirits were normally high, and she was naive and innocent. I think that she was probably my favorite character. I did not always feel like I, as a reader, had a strong emotional connection with her. I also was a bit annoyed with how she didn’t speak English or Yiddish but could almost always understand the other girls in the factory, even when they spoke to her in a different tongue. I felt like this was poor writing.

Yetta was her Russian coworker. She was probably the character hardest for me to relate to, but I still loved her. I loved her determination during the strikes and how she wouldn’t back down for anything. Towards the end of the book she was mostly just annoying because of how bitter she was. She became bitter with her friends and sister.

I loved how Jane fought for women’s rights in her own way. She wasn’t in the same situation as Bella or Yetta but, still, she fought and helped out how she could. I loved her selflessness, and I think she portrayed a very realistic rich person in this story. It showed how money changed everything back then.

I won’t bore you with history nerd facts, but I thought that this book was a great representation of what was going on during this time. It showed the very real struggles of no middle class and the fight for women’s rights.

I give this book 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Finding Inspiration

February: Finding Inspiration to Overcome Writer’s Block

How do you deal with writer’s block? That’s probably the most frequently asked question of any author and their least favourite to answer. I decided to tackle finding an answer in 2017 by drawing inspiration other forms of art. Once a month I’ll be trying something different and discussing the results.

For February, I attended a ballet presentation of Cinderella at a local theatre with some friends.

I should mention first that I am not new to ballet. I personally didn’t make it far in lessons as a child, mainly because my teacher felt the classes were better suited to young ladies and not monkeys. My sister, however, was a different story. For years ballet was her life. I vividly remember how gruelling it was on her, especially on her feet. Point is brutal. No matter what happens in a production of this sort, I will always have an admiration for what the ballerinas go through and do. This is not an easy life to choose. For that reason alone, they deserve applause.

Ballet storytelling is different from any other you may encounter. It’s very speculative and in some cases a little hard to follow. There is no narrative, only dance. A program can be very useful, albeit they usually are quite expensive. Inside you’ll find a breakdown of the scenes and a list of who plays which character. If you decide to go it without a guide, you will have to pay very close attention to details. Costumes, although, usually brightly coloured, are made to represent classical ballet.

Once you know who each of the characters are, you should be able to follow along quite easily. You’ll hear a lot of people say they enjoyed the second half of a production better than the first for that reason alone.

This particular production had its ups and downs, but for the most part was well done in my opinion. Cinderella, of course, is a classic tale that is hard not to love. The fairy godmother and her fairy posse were the highlight of the evening, showing off incredible skill in their dancing abilities.

Are you wondering about the results of my experiment? It was a great evening out with good friends and I enjoyed myself immensely, but I didn’t find the same inspiration levels as I did in January.

February’s visit to the ballet was, in my opinion, a success from a social standpoint! Most authors are, after all, introverts. I am no different. Going out once in a while is a good thing!

I am, however, looking to keep that creativity flowing. In March, my family is planning the destination for my birthday. It’s a surprise for everyone, even me! I hope you’ll join me for those results next month!

Thanks for reading The Write Information.

Book Reviews, Diversity

A Story of Independence Versus Filial Duty

I am a person who totally judges books by their covers, despite all the warnings. Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai is one such book – though I was intrigued more by the title than anything (even with a gorgeous book design). It pulled me in even more with the jacket description of the novel. It’s a realistic fiction set in 1920s Ceylon – when Sri Lanka was ruled by the British – focusing on Balendran and his niece, Annalukshmi. Balendran is a gay man married to a woman and raising a family while his niece wishes to pursue her dreams. The hardest thing for me about reading the book was that sometimes it was difficult for me to keep track of the very developed story arcs for both of the main protagonists. While it is an interesting take and I definitely enjoy alternating points of view in stories, this could easily have been two novels set in the same ‘verse.

What’s interesting is that we do get to see two viewpoints from someone who is already established, Balendran, and someone who is just starting her journey, Annalukshmi. Her story mirrors what I suspect was her uncle’s early struggle to fulfill his role in society and do what was expected. Both have, in their twenties, a choice in front of them and how they approach the choice is affected by generation, gender, economics, and sexuality. Even as I believe it could have been separate novels, the contrast of how they approach life and constraints and opportunity is illuminating. In some ways, as a reader, the desire to yell at them to stand up more for themselves can be pretty strong for most of the novel. And it’s not even just these two – it’s other members of their family as well. When any of them do, it’s quite satisfying; however, I’d say it’s a testament to how well we are able to identify with the struggle to balance expectations and self-fulfillment. It is always easier to see characters in a book saying or doing the thing we wish they wouldn’t say or do but falling into the same trap ourselves.

Neither of them really fit the mold of their filial and cultural expectations, but they have a desire to not let their families down while staying true to themselves. Given the era it was set, it is no surprise that this is the conflict that drives the story. The attitudes exhibited during every interaction eloquently sum up the resolve of Annalukshmi and Balendran to stay on their respective courses or not and it moves along at such a pace that it’s a difficult story to put down. I found myself constantly wanting to know what was going to happen next, how Anna and Bala (as they are affectionately called, among other names of respect), will react, be challenged, or challenge others.

This is a novel that makes you pay attention to every bit of dialogue, every adjective, every feeling and action that occurs in the story lest you miss something. It definitely utilizes language patterns common around 100 years ago in terms of formality, which may be a turn-off for some people. However, Selvadurai uses this dialogue and, at times lofty exposition, to really round out his characters in such distinct ways. He writes so we empathize with every character, see the surroundings, and in many ways experience the book with our senses. It may frustrate us how long it takes us to get to the climax of the story but it is ever so worth it because we are made fully aware of motives, personality, and all the reasons why the climax’s resolution works the way it does.

Selvadurai grew up in Sri Lanka before living in Canada and it is clear he still has strong ties to his home country. The novel was simultaneously illuminating regarding cultural and historical differences from 2016 US as well as adept at pulling me into all-too-familiar struggles, loves, pain, and joy.

Book Reviews, Young Adult

Review: Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

Everyone thinks they know Libby Strout, the girl once dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen.” But no one’s taken the time to look past her weight to get to know who she really is. Following her mom’s death, she’s been picking up the pieces in the privacy of her home, dealing with her heartbroken father and her own grief. Now, Libby’s ready: for high school, for new friends, for love, and for every possibility life has to offer. In that moment, I know the part I want to play here at MVB High. I want to be the girl who can do anything.

Everyone thinks they know Jack Masselin, too. Yes, he’s got swagger, but he’s also mastered the impossible art of giving people what they want, of fitting in. What no one knows is that Jack has a newly acquired secret: he can’t recognize faces. Even his own brothers are strangers to him. He’s the guy who can re-engineer and rebuild anything, but he can’t understand what’s going on with the inner workings of his brain. So he tells himself to play it cool: Be charming. Be hilarious. Don’t get too close to anyone.

Until he meets Libby. When the two get tangled up in a cruel high school game—which lands them in group counseling and community service—Libby and Jack are both pissed, and then surprised. Because the more time they spend together, the less alone they feel. Because sometimes when you meet someone, it changes the world, theirs and yours.
–Back cover of Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

Upon starting this book I fell in love with Libby and Jack. Initially, I was in love with the whole story, but as the book progressed this began to change for several reasons.

The beginning of the book is worthy of praise. The author shows us a charming story of two teenagers who are both facing different battles that cause them to feel alone in the world. Libby is extremely obese, and Jack has prosopagnosia. It was nearly impossible to put the book down for the first one hundred pages. I was in love with how Niven was representing these two types of people who are often not represented.  

I also love her writing style. This is a matter of opinion, but I love how brief her chapters are. On average, they were between 2 and 6 pages, which I personally love, but I know that some people are not a fan of such short chapters, especially considering that each chapter alternated between Libby and Jack’s point of view.

As I continued reading my love for this novel began to fade. I began to see some problems that I would have preferred to ignore and love this book, but I believe that ignoring problems like this can help stereotypes form.

The biggest problem that I saw with the book was that both the obesity and the prosopagnosia seemed to be used as literary devices. To some extent they were even romanticized. This caused it to seem like the only reason the characters had this struggle was so that they could fall in love with each other’s faults and insecurities. I was deeply disappointed by this because when I began the book I truly believed that it was going to represent these issues in a wonderful way. The issues are represented, but not in the way that I hoped they would be.

My other problem with the book was that it did not have a realistic view on high school and bullying. When bullying happens, it is a horrible occurrence, but some people do not understand that it is often a quiet event. This book included a scene where Jack walked into the school and saw three or four incidents of bullying and this was normal for the school. This gave an incorrect view of what happens in these situations. If this view is formed people may not take an individual seriously when they tell them they are bullied because they will not have seen it and will not realize what it is.

Despite its faults, this was still an entertaining read. I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Book Reviews, Diversity

A Trio of Stories from Francophone Africa

When I was perusing the local county’s library’s online collection from the comfort of my home (it is basically winter in Minnesota, after all), the book Fools, Thieves, and Other Dreamers: Stories from Francophone Africa caught my eye. I read it, and I’m so glad I did. Upon opening the first pages, I learned the book was a project overseen by the French Embassy and the Zimbabwe International Book Fair that wanted to focus on Francophone literature and make it accessible to Anglophone readers and writers. The University of Zimbabwe had an important role in the translation of these stories.  With a story each from Seydi Sow, Florent Couao-Zotti, and Abdourahman Ali Waberi, these are compelling writings that highlight problems individuals and societies face. This is definitely a read for those who enjoy stories that make you think but don’t have a ton of time to read.

The first story, From the Depths of a Well, is written by Senegalese author Seydi Sow. The story presents us with the problem right from the beginning: several people are trapped in a well and have to figure out how to save themselves. Each person represents different facets of society: two governmental officials, a judge, and a civilian. There’s a chance for each one to present a case as to why they should be the first one out who could bring back help to rescue the others. Deeply philosophical in nature, this is really a story of society’s ills and individual’s distrust of others embodied by each of the characters. They are so well-crafted, you wonder how the immediate problem of getting out of the well will be solved and are made to think of how this is a reflection of the state of the world today. This was my favorite of the trio.

The second story, Small Hells on Street Corners, by Beninese author and teacher Florent Couao-Zotti, also starts strong; this time with an action-packed scene. Where Sow’s story is adeptly and firmly philosophical and civilian-vs-The Man, Couao-Zotti’s story is clearly a tale of economics, poverty, and greed – especially its effects on kids. Fear is prevalent in the story, palpable and the the driving force of the unnamed boy-thief. The hardest part of reading this was the change in viewpoint. It took me a while to really get the hang of it. Police are trying to figure out who the boy-thief is and seek to catch him while the boy-thief seeks to get away. He undergoes some pretty horrific things due to the corruption and greed of the city. From what I gather, there is also an interrogation occurring – whether of the boy-thief or not is a little unclear.

Finally, The Fool’s Gallery by Djibouti’s Abdourahman Ali Waberi. Here is an author who gorgeously describes every detail so we are fully entrenched in the same surroundings as the characters. The story here focuses on addiction and its harrowing effects on not only the addicted but on their loved ones as well. His descriptions of not only the setting, but of people, motives, and how he characterizes different types of addicts is really rather stunning. It’s clear he has a poet’s heart.

Three incredibly different stories from different authors and countries tied together first by language, second by continent, and third by holding no punches. We are made to think, feel, and be illuminated by these stories. Read it in a day or read each story with several days in between reading to really give you time to ponder them. It’s often used at the University of Zimbabwe as part of the curriculum – and that’s a class I’d love to sit in. I’ve got at least one full-length novel in my library pile by Wari. It’d be interesting to see what other works these authors have to offer.

The 'Write' Information

Spicy Valentine’s Day Cookies

Valentine’s Day is the international celebration of love. It’s a magical time, that shouldn’t be restricted to couples. This is a special recipe I like to make every February for friends and family. The best part is it uses up those pesky little cinnamon hearts that are too strong to actually eat on their own.

I love to find ways to brighten up the lives of the people closest to me. Cookies every now and then really hit the spot. This is my chance to share my creativity and bring out a few smiles at the same time. Since I am giving these away, I make them in larger batches. This particular recipe is for 4 dozen. I go through hundreds of these cookies every year.


Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 2/3 cup of butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons of vanilla
  • 2 teaspoons of cornstarch
  • 3 cups of flour
  • 1 cup of cinnamon hearts

Notes:

Unless you are a seasoned baker or at least mildly confident about baking, I suggest you keep all of the ingredients as listed. That means no substitutions.

I know you might love watching those cooking shows where gorgeous people can eyeball amounts and toss them into a bowl. I don’t want to burst any bubbles, but most of that isn’t real. Amounts are pre-measured before taping. Of course, there are a few exceptions. If you feel the need to try your luck at guessing, try to restrict yourself to certain ingredients. Flour is not one of them. You need level amounts of flour in your cookie dough – too little makes a sticky mess – too much and you taste the flour.

If you want to play, start with something easy. I suggest vanilla. A smidgen extra or too little of the extract won’t make or break a recipe. Feel free to decrease the amounts of cinnamon hearts as well, or try your hand at a different type of candy. Food colour can also be fun.


The fun part–baking:

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Lightly grease your cookie trays. I buy tinfoil trays for larger amounts of cookies. It makes clean up much easier, but feel free to use your regular trays. Then I use baking cooking spray on them. It has a buttery flavour to it. Plain is fine.

Using a hand mixer cream together the butter, egg, vanilla and sugar. Add in the cornstarch.

At this point, you will want to take a wooden spoon and lightly mix in the flour. Then use the hand mixer to fully beat the dough. While it isn’t necessary to do the wooden spoon part, you’ll have quite a bit of dusting to do after you finish cooking if you skip it.

Mix in cinnamon hearts using a spoon.

These cookies don’t really spread a lot while cooking so 2 inches apart is probably a good distance to scoop out 2 tablespoon sized balls.

While every oven is different, the general cooking time of these cookies is 12-14 minutes. Take a peek at 12 minutes and give it the extra two if needed. Make a note of your preferred oven time for next year.

As an author, I like to personalize my gifts a little more and make them extra special. A tray of cookies pairs perfectly with a promotional mug, complete with tea bag and a copy of my latest book!

I hope you enjoy this tasty recipe. Join me next time for another edition of The Write Information.

Diversity

Poetry from Djibouti’s Celebrated Abdourahman A Waberi

I first heard for Abdourahman A. Waberi when I purchased The United States of Africa as a gift, though I hadn’t read anything by him until recently. A native of Djibouti, he’s a professor of writing and literature mainly in France, but also has taught in the USA, Germany, and other places. Several of his books have been translated into English, but he writes in French. Novels, poems, short stories, essays, and academic work all are tackled in his portfolio.

The collection of poems is titled The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper. Published in French in 2013 and translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson in 2015,

highlights writings over a span of twenty years, even though it is one of his later publications.. They don’t follow a particular set form, except to say they are each quite short and free verse–many are not longer than a stanza, some are as few as a couple of lines. He himself states in the preface that these poems are meant to be economic and, specifically, avoiding excess (page xiv).

Oftentimes, poets have a particular geography in which they write or select a set of poems around a place for which they have an affinity, for whatever reason. It is clear that though he hasn’t lived primarily in Djibouti in 30 years, he still loves and celebrates it. This collection is a definite homage to his homeland. Not only does he describe the landscape, but also includes the night sky, insight to the people there, the interplay between the three as well as the emotional landscape within and interpersonal relationships. Even if the physical place doesn’t show up in every poem, it’s still there.

He adores simplicity and economy of words and rejects excess in this collection – from the outset, as mentioned, he was intentional in this goal. Being able to revel in life without excess is evident throughout.The way he introduces the collection reveals a connection to the land of his ancestors and their migratory patterns – a life unencumbered by many of the material things many hoard in today’s age. He seems to find freedom in that kind of existence as well as beauty and wants to share it with readers as best he can.

In reading these poems, it is evident he is well-educated and is thus able to connect the imagery and spirit of Djibouti to western audiences. Even so, he is at times artistic and tangible in his renderings of the landscape and people (and his emotional connection to them or between them), and in others, very ethereal, metaphorical, and lofty in his descriptions. These are not poems to be read swiftly, one after the other, but instead to be read and then mentally and emotionally digested to grasp the whole of it. Some people prefer their poems plain and easily accessible; if you are one of them, this collection is not for you. For those who like working for your poetry reading, this is definitely for you to read immediately.

Book Reviews, Young Adult

Review: Paperweight by Meg Haston

Seventeen-year-old Stevie is trapped. In her life. And now in an eating-disorder treatment center on the dusty outskirts of the New Mexico desert.

Life in the center is regimented and intrusive, a nightmare come true. Nurses and therapists watch Stevie at mealtime, accompany her to the bathroom, and challenge her to eat the foods she’s worked so hard to avoid.

Her dad has signed her up for sixty days of treatment. But what no one knows is that Stevie doesn’t plan to stay that long. There are only twenty-seven days until the anniversary of her brother Josh’s death—the death she caused. And if Stevie gets her way, there are only twenty-seven days until she too will end her life.
–Back cover of Paperweight by Meg Haston

If you’re into beautifully emotional books then this book is for you. This book will tear your heart out, but it won’t stop there. After your heart is torn out, the book will continue to tear it into tiny little pieces. So, if that’s your thing, go for it.

This book is really well written. It is obvious that the author knew what she was talking about when she wrote this book, and it is so important to show mental illness for what it really is. This book does not hold back. It does not romanticize it. This is, in my opinion, one of the best books that talk about eating disorders. So often I see books that talk about mental illness solely so that someone can fall in love with the mentally ill person and show that they’re still lovable even if they’re “messed up.” This book states it for what it is. It isn’t a personality quirk. It is an illness.

Haston told Stevie’s story of recovery in a realistic and entertaining way.

I liked most of the side characters, but I did not like Stevie very much. She is a very bitter and, at times, whiny character. I just found her annoying and a bit frustrating throughout the book, but I think that is how she was supposed to come across. I don’t really think she was supposed to be likable because her illness had changed some aspects of her personality. She very strongly judged people by their weight. However, the side characters made up for this for the most part. I really liked them.

The thing that bothered me about the book was the author’s use of flashbacks. Personally, I think that flashbacks are an example of poor writing. I think that there were other ways that she could have portrayed this aspect of the story. The present was interesting and the past was interesting, but I did not like how she transferred between the two.

I give this book four out of five stars.

Book Reviews, Diversity

Solitaire by Kelley Eskeridge

I was first introduced to Kelley Eskeridge’s writing about ten years ago through a collection of essays about writing. She and her partner had co-written one regarding what it’s like to be in a relationship with another writer and the process they go through in bettering one another’s writing. So, in my research to find another book to review, I was very excited to find Solitaire by her. The premise is that in the near future, there is a nation-state, Ko, that is entirely corporate. In this society, where cutting edge technology rules along with profit, there are a handful of people known as Hopes. Ren, also known as Jackal, is such a Hope: one of the few born in the first second of the new year. There is a huge emphasis placed on being a Hope – they are given special training within the company that rules, groomed from a young age to help foster international relations. She’s meant to take on an important and powerful role representing Ko.

Unfortunately, secrets surrounding being a Hope lead to some complications, and thus the impetus of the climax. This secret, as important as it is and as damaging as it is to Jackal and others, the secret keepers aren’t given a lot of development. They are brief side characters, with few glimpses into their motives (if at all), and their relationship to others and especially to each other. And yet, this is very definitely a story of a single person growing.

It’s Jackal’s story of her relationship with herself and how she fits within society – or not. She struggles in ways she shouldn’t have as a result of the fallout from the secret, her growing and redefining herself on her terms instead of on the terms of Ko, and her relationship with Snow. She was never allowed to be alone until she was required to and the change it effects is incredible. And it makes an interesting point about the difference between public personas versus private ones, how the weight of expectation in entirely public forums juxtaposes against an uncertain private and very closed off personal life. Certain aspects of this development could have been fleshed out better, but the aftermath is quite intriguing.

Honestly, this character development tied up with secrecy versus openness is really the driving force of the plot. How do characters respond to secrets, whether keeping them or discovering them? How do they respond to them when it comes on an incredibly personal level versus a corporate and government level? These reactions at once highlight the character development and the plot development of what was and what could be. On the downside, Jackal is probably the most secretive of them all: a product of her status that infuriates those around her, and at times, the reader.

What I like about Eskeridge’s style is that she writes in such a manner that anyone could read it. It’s engaging and page-turning. She weaves in perspectives from other points of view that Jackal isn’t privy to until much later, if at all, and does it with the right amount of frequency and detail to add crucial bits to the story without being obtrusive. Now if only she could turn that towards fleshing out more of her upbringing, the story might be better served.

The best part about this for me, other than an intriguing look into government-controlled studies and psychological interludes is the fact that Jackal and Snow are in a same-sex relationship. It’s representation without it being the focal point of the entire plot. It’s discussed as naturally as it should be and not propped up like some strange vexing thing. And it’s a relationship that has its problems as any relationship would, but rooted in love and sincerely so.

Overall, this is a book I would recommend for those who enjoy a bit of dystopia and a bit of psychological thriller set partially in virtual reality. Of course, this is also for those who want more LGBTQIA+ representation, as well!