The 57 Bus – Dashka Slater

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater is a true story that follows two people, Sasha and Richard, through the events leading up to a fire on the 57 Bus in Oakland, California. Sasha lives in the wealthier part of the city with her parents. Sasha classifies themself as agender, meaning that they do not identify as any gender. Richard is an African American boy who lives in the part of Oakland where the vast majority of crime is committed, from petty theft to murder. On November 4, 2013, Sasha and Richard are riding the same bus when Richard lights Sasha’s skirt on fire leaving them with severe burns on their legs and arms. From here their lives collide and follows their trials. Sasha’s being the healing from the burns and the trials against Richard. While Richard’s are focused around the time spent in jail awaiting the trials.

Slater starts off spending time explaining each person giving about fifty pages to each of them explaining them before the fire. Sasha’s chapters are spent explaining their sexuality and how being agender is a big part of their identity as person. I found it helpful that Slater blends in a glossary for LGBTQ+ terms. I am not familiar with some of them and when they were mentioned in the book it was nice to be able to go back into Sasha’s chapters and look them up. I, admittedly, had a hard time keeping things straight with Sasha’s prefered pronouns, due to continually thinking that the author was talking about more than one person. However, as the author states early on, “it might feel awkward at first, but you’ll get used to it.”(pg. 14) I indeed did by the time Sasha’s chapters ended. Sasha also has Asperger Syndrome, a form of Autism, which I’m not sure is well portrayed well, but everyone is different in how Asperger’s affects them and just because it does not reflect my experiences with someone who has Asperger’s that doesn’t meant that it is incorrect.

Richard’s chapters spend a lot of time explaining his personality and the environment that he is living in. He lives with his mom and several other family members, he sees his dad when he isn’t prison for one thing or another. Tragically, two of his extended family members were murdered in the streets during his lifetime. His grades are poor and he skips school, though he is attempting to do better.

After the fire Slater talks about a lot of different things. From was it truly a hate crime to was Richard’s sentencing influenced by race. She doesn’t put much bias here as to whether or not Richard’s sentencing was fair or not, only explaining things that could have influenced the trial. Who influenced Richard act the way he did? Should he be tried as an adult or a juvenile?

Slater’s usage of short chapters worked well in telling the narrative. It allowed for her to add in smaller interviews that she read through her writing process without it taking away from the main story. Some of these include scenes with Richard’s mother and friends and Sasha’s friends, family, and at one point the two gentlemen who helped extinguish their skirt. This allows for character development in shorter bursts and in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the reader.

By the end I’m not sure, both characters are likable and I don’t find myself leaning one way or another. Richard seems to show regret, and Sasha is unsure what they want to happen to Richard saying “I know that he hurt me. He did something that’s really dangerous and stupid. But then again, he’s a sixteen year old kid and sixteen year old kids are kind of dumb.”(pg. 212) In the end, Slater does a remarkable job writing each of their stories using resources and keeping as true to their stories as she could with the resources that she had to use.

Boy Erased – Garrard Conley

“Was this what the Church was warning me about the whole time? And if this was the punishment I had received on earth, how much worse was it going to be in the afterlife?” pg. 117

In the Boy Erased: A Memoir, Gerrard Conley recounts his time in Love in Action, a Christian Ministry specializing the the conversion of Homosexuals into Ex-gays. Conley’s story is focused to 2004, with some backtracking to things that happened earlier in his life, though he uses his “homework” assignments from LIA to show the majority of these. Conley talks in detail about the steps of LIA as well as the tactics used in attempt to convert him.

Conley did not decide to write his memoir in a way that I expected. I expected this to be written more like smaller life stories that added to the overarching story, but the majority of the novel takes place is 2004 when he was in the LIA. When he does include things that happened outside of 2004 he does so using journals that he recalls writing for the first step of the program. Boy Erased read a lot more how I would expect a fiction novel would read. Which after learning more about the author makes sense as he goes on to finish college and get a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. This did not make the memoir unenjoyable, it was just unexpected.

One of the most shocking things to me about this novel was the Conley was admitted to Love in Action in 2004. I was eleven in 2004 and it is terrifying to think that these horrific things happened in the United States during my lifetime. He does a good job of bringing the year into perspective by describing himself playing Final Fantasy VIII on the Playstation and later going to see The Passion of the Christ in the movie theater. These two things I was alive for the release.

I spent the majority of this memoir thinking that Conley willing admitted himself into the program, but I came to find out later on that his father, a Baptist Pastor, forced him into it.  This was appalling to me, who would willingly put their child through Hell just in the hopes that it would make them not be gay anymore? This hell did not use physical abuse, only verbal abuse justified by Bible. At one point Conley says that he felt as though being Gay would lead him to “messing around with someone’s dog if [he] didn’t cure himself.” (pg.6) The therapy made him believe that being a homosexual was no different than being a pedophile, a murderer or participating in bestiality.

Conley also struggles deeply with his faith throughout the year. Conley grew up in a deeply religious family, his father becoming a baptist preacher later in his life. Conley recalls as a kid being terrified of Armageddon and he would be left alone because his parents’ faith was stronger than his. The Baptist faith was deeply ingrained into his being but because of the LIA he found himself wondering if any of the bad things happened to him was because of his homosexuality and that it was God’s way of punishing him for his sins. He does not understand why God would allow him to be a gay or why, no matter how much he prayed, it refused to go away. Conley never comes to terms with this and in the epilogue mentions that his faith in God never recovered.

Conley says, “I wish none of this had ever happened. Sometimes I thank God that it did.”(Author’s Note) I, truly, wish that the things that happened in this book never happened to you, but I am proud of the bravery you had to share your story with millions of people. Thank you for your courage.

Sometimes I Lie – Alice Feeney

Amber Reynolds finds herself in the hospital after an accident. She finds that she can’t move, speak or even open her eyes. She can, however, feel and hear everything that is going on around her. She finds that she can’t remember why she’s in the hospital, but she has a sneaking suspicion that it has to do with her husband, Paul. The novel moves between three time periods. Before the accident, her time in the hospital and her time as a child through usage of diary entries. Amber finds herself digging for the truth while in her coma, finding herself pulled around in her sense of truth. Who really put her into her coma? Her husband? Sister? Psycho ex-boyfriend? Was it all an accident or was there a motive?

Well, I have to say that I do love a good thriller, Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney was not one. It was okay at best. It was an interesting premise. A woman ends up in a coma and doesn’t know how she got there. Feeney attempts to use the time that Amber spends in a coma to pull everything that is happening together. Pulling in parts from the novel that happened before she ended up in the coma, and even going back to when Amber was younger and keeping a diary. But some of this becomes muddled when the twist is revealed. It took several minutes to understand exactly what happened at each of the twists. Even the final twist at the end of the book left it open as to what exactly happened.

The side characters are flat, only suspicious enough to be considered in the “Who Done It” scheme.  Amber’s husband, Paul, appears to be withdrawn and uninterested in her, Claire, the perfect sister with a temper, and Edward the ex-boyfriend who shows up out of the blue. However, she does use this to her advantage. Having three side characters with seemingly suspicious motives allows Feeney to lure the reader into thinking whom it truly is the perpetrator, often leading you back to someone that you thought was in the clear.

Overall the novel isn’t terrible but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone or read it again.

SPOILERS START HERE

This book as a curious ending to say the least. Amber, shortly after waking from her coma kills her sister and husband, drugging both of them and then setting the house on fire. Just like Claire did to her parents house when they were younger, allowing for Amber’s parents to be able to a her into their household. Things get a little muddy from here and are open to interpretation. The possibilities that I see are that  Amber and Paul are alive and on tour for Paul’s new novel after adoption her sister’s twins after the accident. Secondly, Claire could have been the one who killed Amber and Paul allowing for her and David to assume their lives and travel with the twins — this one I find to be the least likely. Thirdly, Claire was having an affair with Paul and killed Amber and David in the fire just so that they could be together, they then tour with the twins. Another is that it was Claire or Amber delivered the bracelet, depending on who you believed died in the fire showing that they are still alive. Finally, there is an option involving Edward, who is assumed to of been killed by either Amber or Claire when the police find charred skin in his tanning bed. He could possibly not be dead and delivered the bracelet to the hotel room, perhaps because Amber or Claire told him too. These options are all taken into consideration because the last page of the novel is a different version of the first page:

“My name is Amber Taylor Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me.

  1. I was in a coma.
  2. My sister died in a tragic accident.
  3. Sometimes I lie.” (pg. 451)

So what was she lying about in the end? Who was in the bed when the house burned down? Her identity? Or is she not actually lying about anything in the end? Moreover, is the whole novel a lie?

Matchmaking For Beginners – Maddie Dawson

Matchmaking For Beginners by Maddie Dawson is a perfect book for those who are looking for a novel that is lighthearted, and fun. There isn’t anything particularly deep about this book, though there’s a fair amount of life advice that can be taken away from it.

The novel follows two main characters Blix Holliday and Marnie MacGraw. Marnie MacGraw is the ex-wife of Blix’s nephew, Noah. A few months before their wedding Marnie meets Blix, Noah’s eccentric aunt, who everyone in Noah’s family thinks is a nutcase. During their encounter Blix becomes convinced that Marnie has big things going for her saying, “You’re amazing and powerful, and you’re in for a big, big life. There are lots of surprises in store for you. The universe is going to take you to such heights.” Marnie’s marriage falls apart after just two weeks and shortly following that, her job. Feeling miserable and defeated she moves back in with her parents. During this time Noah, arrives at Blix’s home to find that she is about to die from cancer. A cancer that she knew about about before she met Marnie, but told no one in the family about. He is hurt by this and her refusal to go to the hospital and get treatment. After Marnie has finally started to settle in to her life back in her hometown, she receives a letter from Blix’s lawyer telling her that Blix died and left her home in Brooklyn, New York. Thinking that she will only be there for a short amount of time she books a flight and leaves to sign the paperwork with the lawyer and then put the house for sale. Her plan, however, does not come to fruition when she finds out that Blix has made a stipulation that she must live in the house for three months before she decides if she likes it or not. Chaos ensues from here.

One of the things that I loved the most about this novel is that Dawson manages to make the mundane things that happen in life fun and interesting with how she describes them. For instance, she describes one of Noah’s nervous ticks saying, “underneath the table, his knee is bouncing up and down like it’s connected to a metronome.” This is not something that many people think about when they are doing it, or watching someone else, and yet she perfectly describes the movement in a way that makes it clear what is happening but not in a way that makes it mundane like the action truly is.  “Emotion was a luxury item on the menu and he couldn’t afford it” is what she uses to describe someone who is emotionally closed off.

This book, while it is a cute and easy book to read, offers a plethora of life advice most of it focusing around relationships and the different views on them. Blix’s relationship with her significant other, Houndy, is one that after having three divorces she decides that “if you have to bring the law into your personal relationships, then you’re doing it wrong.” While it is a different way of looking at relationships, it is not an incorrect way of looking at it. Their relationship is wholesome and Houndy is “made from stardust” as Blix says. Houndy does lament about Blix’s decision to forgo cancer treatment but he understands and trusts in her decisions. At one point he reveals that he wishes that she could live forever to which Blix responds “If we all lived forever.. Then life really wouldn’t have any meaning. So why not embrace it, prepare for it, and love what is?” How beautiful is it for someone to come to terms about their death instead of being bitter and resentful. Blix does this one more time when Noah shows up at her house. Noah is concerned that she is going to suffer when she dies, but she tells him, “oh, my darling, I have decided not to suffer. Suffering is optional.” Later in the same conversation she says, “I’m not scared, and I don’t want you do be scared either.” It is touching that she comforts him in her sickness when she is the one who most would think would need the most comforting.

Matchmaking for Beginners is a lovely novel, that offers the reader a little bit of everything from romance to tragedy. It speaks of some hard topics in a way that makes it beautiful and less distressing for reader. All in all, I loved Matchmaking for Beginners and I hope that anyone who decides to read this novel feels the same. But as Blix would say “Whatever happens, love that.”

A River in Darkness -Masaji Ishikawa

A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea is a heartbreaking memoir of Masaji Ishikawa’s life and escape from North Korea. This memoir is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for those looking for a happy ending. I found this memoir difficult to get into, but I am glad that I pushed through it to finish the memoir completely.

While I openly admit that I only knew the basics of how North Korea operated, this novel made things much more clear for me. Not from a historical viewpoint, as concrete facts and dates are few and far between, but from the viewpoint of someone who experienced it first hand. Not just a scholar who learned it through lecture. By not bogging the memoir down with dates it makes it much easier to see what happens as something the truly exists. It’s important to note that Ishikawa’s mother was Japanese and his father was South Korean. He was born in Japan and his father was conned through North Korean propaganda promising of a better life to move his family. Ishikawa mentions multiple times about how they were forced to use the Junche method when it came to farming rice. In which they were told to plant the rice close together. Those who were farmers knew better than to do this as it would lead to overcrowding and as a result a poor harvest. They had no choice and did as they were told, increasing the severity of starvation every year. Eventually the famine became so bad that Ishikawa, and many others, were forced to steal just to survive.

While I had hope that this memoir would end happily, this would be far from the truth. In 1996, 36 years later, Ishikawa would would escape across the Yalu River into China, but he would do so alone leaving his wife and children behind. The rest of his family was either dead or missing by this time. Through the Japanese Consulate managed to make it back to his homeland in Japan. Here, even his Mother’s Family refused to speak with him and he again found himself, jobless and without friends and family. He learned eventually that his wife had passed away, and in 2005 his daughter as well. He received a letter from his son 1998 , saying that he was looking for a job with his four children in tow. But this would be the last time that he heard from him as his letters abruptly stopped after that. He knows that if he had stayed in North Korea he is sure that he would have starved but he laments that “at least I’d have died in someone’s arms with my family gathered around me.” He closes out his novel saying, “people talk about God. Although I can’t see him myself, I still pray for a happy ending.” I hope that he finds one in the end.