Monster by Walter Dean Myers

Book reviews are subjective. I tend to rate books not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me.

Monster by Walter Dean Myers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(Click the title to find the book description/blurb.)

Half of those jurors…believed you were guilty the moment they laid eyes on you. You’re young, you’re Black, and you’re on trial. What else do they need to know?

At sixteen years old, Steve Harmon is on trial as an accomplice to a murder. As a high school student with an interest in filmmaking, Steve records his time in jail and in the courtroom in the form of a screenplay, titling it what the prosecutor called him: Monster by author Walter Dean Myers.

Count this as the only time I’ve ever read a novel written as a movie. That immediately got my attention when I picked up this YA book on an impulse.

But what I came to appreciate most about the story? It didn’t turn out to be the oversimple tale it could have been. It may be easy to string together a bunch of clichés concerning a hot button topic, to insert them into a predictable plot, and then—BAM!—you’ve got a novel about a hot social “issue.”

This novel isn’t that. Yes, it relevantly takes a social climate into account, but it isn’t merely using that to spin a drama together, nor is it just a ride or a race to figure out whodunit. Rather, this is a story of lost innocence. It’s a story of reflection, of questions.

Haunting questions.

And it seems to me, the novel’s value is in getting readers, especially (but not only) young adults, to reflect. To question. Perhaps to even form a habit of reflecting, of seriously thinking about what’s important, before trouble demands it.

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Note to my blog readers: this novel contains some violent material within and outside of jail.

 

Arts, Sports, Entertainment, and a World in Crisis Mode

I’ve written before about people deeming the work of others to be unimportant, particularly when it comes to people who work in different areas of entertainment. It seems the coronavirus pandemic has led to a new wave of finger-pointing regarding whose work matters, whose work doesn’t, and how this time of quarantining proves afresh that overpaid pro athletes and movie stars and the like are useless when the rubber meets the road.

Now, this post isn’t to raise a debate about how much money entertainers should or shouldn’t make.

Still, that doesn’t negate the fact that a lot of folks who enjoy the entertainment that athletes and actors provide willingly pay for that entertainment all the time. There’d be little money invested or made in professional sports and motion pictures and such if paying fans and audiences didn’t exist or weren’t interested.

Anyway, yeah, “your work doesn’t matter” finger-pointing hits a nerve in me, maybe more so because I’m an author. It seems plenty of people think of artists and writers as folks whose work isn’t all that necessary, and perhaps that way of thinking will continue right through this time when people are staying at home more than usual and watching more movies and TV series and reading more books—entertainment that wouldn’t exist without “useless” artists and writers.

Huh.

Well. When it comes to professional athletes, I don’t think the fact that many of them can’t presently engage in their work (the entertaining parts of the work that audiences see, anyway) means the athletes are useless any more than the fact that stage actors and artists who can’t presently engage in their work means those actors and artists are useless. The work required in arts and entertainment is hard, made even harder when your upcoming events are canceled and many ticket-holders understandably want their money back.

Again, I’m not judging how valuable entertainment is, monetary wise, or how much audiences should or shouldn’t pay for it. But I don’t think a temporary world crisis/survival mode that forces technical designations of Essential and Nonessential jobs means: “Anyone whose work isn’t listed as one of these Essential jobs is a useless worker.” Not at all.

And while I in no way mean to minimize the seriousness of an international pandemic, it doesn’t mean I think times of crisis are the only times that truly matter. There’d be little reason to get through a crisis if there wasn’t a preferable quality of life waiting on the other side of it.

What we do on the other side indeed matters, including the places and times when people gather together to work, to play, and to worship. To sing and dance and go to the movies. To go to school, to go to the library, or to go out to shop and eat together. To see stage plays, to attend concerts, to high-five and holler at sporting events, to be delighted and awed at the ballet. To go visit friends and family.

It’s all a part of life. Basic survival is super-important, yes, but that’s not all there is to living well. Not by a long shot.

So. Instead of using this time to put down all the Nonessential and “useless” workers out there, we’d be wise to let this experience remind us that it takes all kinds of work in the world to add to our overall quality of life—to make life not only worth surviving through but more worth living.

 

Broken Strings by Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer

Book reviews are subjective. I tend to rate books not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me. I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher for an honest review.

Broken Strings by Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(Click the title to find the book description/blurb.)

Shirli doesn’t land the role she wants in her junior high school’s upcoming play, Fiddler on the Roof, but she does get to partner in the production with cute, popular Ben. While looking for props to use in the play, Shirli finds an old violin in her grandfather’s attic, not knowing the instrument’s connection to a tragic family secret in Broken Strings by authors Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer.

I had quite the experience with this middle grade read. It addresses a dark subject (evidenced by the barbed wire and Star of David on the cover) without having the depressing overall texture/mood of dry gloom that I find in other novels that go to such painful places. Yet, I wasn’t sure for a while if I’d finish this book. The style and phrasing had an unoriginal feel to me, and I wasn’t finding the heroine or her young peers to be particularly interesting.

But the unfolding of Shirli’s grandfather’s part in the story had me intrigued. His poignant role began to bring the story together and, effectively, to strengthen the other characters. The read became richer as I went along, taking history and the need to recognize the value of all humanity, weaving it with Shirli’s personal journey and heritage, and culminating in a beautiful, redemptive finish that tugged on my soul.

The plot held no big surprises for me, but it eventually pulled me in so well that I finished this novel in one sitting—something this reader doesn’t do every day.

 

When Hope Calls by David Lui

Book reviews are subjective. I tend to rate books not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me.

When Hope Calls: Based on a True Human Trafficking Story by David Lui

(Click the title to find the book description/blurb.)

Morris, a humanitarian worker, and the staff of a human rights organization receive a desperate phone call from a girl named Mya, saying she’s been kidnapped. She doesn’t know where she is, but Morris and his team are determined to find and rescue Mya as part of their fight against human trafficking in When Hope Calls by author David Lui.

Although I found this novella (based on a true story) categorized as a kidnapping thriller, the subject didn’t have me expecting thrills, and all things considered, I indeed wouldn’t call this a thrilling read.

It’s suspenseful, but for much of the time, the characters are waiting in dismal silence. Fiction-wise, the plot development suffers from emotional lows that are overwritten and redundant, with the characters sitting in abject despair for hours and spending a good amount of time feeling sorry for themselves and this place in their careers or lives. On a more technical note, there are some missing words and recurring errors in punctuation.

However, sometimes a story’s message and purpose are bigger than the story, and that’s okay. This quick and relevant read serves to raise awareness of a widespread, urgent real-life issue, without sugarcoating it but also without resorting to unnecessary vulgarity. It’s a call to remind humanity that we have to fight against modern-day slavery.