My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Author Lynn McElfresh must have had a mean sister, or mean daughter, or herself been a real crab in adolescence, because she is so authentic here in depicting teen-sister characters constantly at the demarkation line between I’d like to love you and I’d love to kill you. The fact that Jade, who is hearing, communicates in sign with her older deaf sister Marla is the most benign part of their tense relationship while living at home and playing on the same softball team all summer. This is a great exemplification for young readers of all physical abilities to see that coping with physical difference is doable, getting along with your bitch or baby sister is almost impossible. The form of the storytelling is distinctive as each sister is the alternating first-person narrator of the same plot flow, both characters expressing their opinion about the other being the cause of their fights in the house. And Marla’s version is interpolated in the form of ASL shorthand. The written sign language is an unconventional, if sometimes tedious, idea, but the book’s novella size is just right for this effort. I would be curious to learn from hearing-impaired readers if they consider the use of ASL a valid voice or a patronizing contrivance. Two short comings for me: the parents, also deaf characters, are depicted in broad strokes. Even when they are in scenes with the daughters they lack presence. Second, the softball field seems to be presented from the beginning as the place where the battle between the sisters will culminate, instead the story near the end takes a rather orthogonal trip into the woods. For my taste, it was a missed opportunity to use the softball as the stage where the girls try to figure out how to communicate emotionally. Neither of these shortcoming will prevent me from recommending Strong Deaf, it is unique and and I liked it.
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Do you believe everything you hear? Joss was a troubled teenager before ever telling his psychiatrist that his bicycle collision with a random car door was “meant to be.” He is the child of upper-middle class professionals who attends a private high school in multidimensional Cambridge, Massachusetts, but he also grew up angry and defiant, and he just got out of two years lock-up in juvie for setting the neighbor’s house on fire. His meeker younger brother killed himself; a tragedy over which the father has fallen into dissociation and the mother has become an irreconcilable bitch who holds Joss responsible. Yet, in the hospital, recovering from the concussion he suffered, Joss feels euphoric, spiritually renewed and he has begun to hear the OM.
The OM is the primordial vibration of the universe. It sounds like a cosmic choir chanting and could anciently be heard by all humans, before the mythical fall of creation. To this point Michael Sussman’s novel Crashing Eden is still a fairly phenomenological YA drama. We are not sure yet if this is a journey into myth and the supernatural, or the story of a depressed kid having a psychotic break.
The psychiatrists seem to have a clinical grasp of what’s wrong (or too right) with Joss. They explain that the OM is an auditory hallucination brought on by Joss’s state of manic bliss. Euphoria and delusions of grandiosity are common to mental patients Joss’s age. Joss’s belief that he has developed special powers, coinciding with the anniversary of his brother’s suicide, is likely a function of Joss’s mind protecting itself from sadness and guilt. Is Joss’s life changing experience of the OM going to be real within the context of the novel, or a maddness through which Joss will exercise his grief? The author will make a choice for the reader about what kind of novel this is going to be – a story about mental illness and family discord, or a sci-fi, superpowers fantasy that will suspend all physical rules to deliver readers beyond the universe to the feet of God. Because Joss believes that something universally significant is happening, and his conviction is about to be substantiated by a series of stupefying narrative events:
Event: Earth is hurtling toward intersection with a vast black hole in outer space, portending the end of the world.
Event: Joss encounters a pair of grad school scientists who have built a wearable device that amplifies the OM. They also enlist Joss in distributing the devices to young people everywhere, in the hope of saving the world by re-syncing it with the primordial vibration of the universe.
Event: the human mission to restore honestly and goodness to the world angers God Himself, who irrationally rains down catastrophic blizzards, earthquakes, and plagues.
Final Event: Joss teams up with the grad students, the ghost of his dead brother, and other friends who have developed supernatural abilities. Joss and company fly as spirit bodies through the black hole to confront God and talk-therapy Him through his attachment disorder related to his own mother abandoning him thirteen billion years before.
Anyone who took a high school English class is probably familiar with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s concept of poetic faith, described as the willing suspension of disbelief. This refers to a reader’s willingness to accept a fictional imagining of the world (or world’s) on the author’s terms. Crashing Eden raises a question about the point at which fantasticism in speculative fiction breaks the readers willing suspension of disbelief. Sci-fi and fantasy stories freight a lot willingness before the cover page is ever turned, and, of course, suspension depends entirely on the individual reader’s cooperation.
There are a couple common ways the fantasy in a genre story gets broken. 1.) The RULES of the Impossible World are implausible in the real world, e.g. the wizard about to cast his death curse conveniently has a heart attack and dies. 2.) The RULES of the Impossible World are inconsistent, e.g. only a wizard can do magic until a non-wizard steals the magic wand. Despite other weaknesses, Crashing Eden actually passes both of these tests. After the on the level looking early chapters, Sussman wends a fairytale path, but there are no early conceits, no limits on the contrived reality that prevent the story from traveling beyond the beyond. So why does Cashing Eden not entirely work? In the druthers of your humble reviewer, its gradually elaborate fantasy simply gets too far out.
If the issue is not broken disbelief, perhaps we could call it cognitive estrangement from the breadth of Sussman’s fantasy world. We can still give up on a story if at some intangible juncture its fantasy proposal feels pointless. Too fantastic. Too weird. There are no doubt other readers for whom legends given authenticity, superpowers employed to punch-out God, and the undisputed existence of God at all, is an exhilarating reading experience. And Sussman deserves credit for giving young readers a positive parable about redemption, healthy self-forgiveness, and celebrating ethics of peace while never ennobling a particular religion. The book is also slyly funny and the teen hero is complex. To my taste, I would have liked the novel to continue in the direction of teen-with-a-mental-problem, and the fantastic parts to be something Joss subconsciously invented as a recovery tool. A little more science and not so much fiction, please. In words attributed to sci-fi author Damon Knight: “Alice In Wonderland, good. Weird Alice In Wonderland, good. Weird Alice In Weird Wonderland, not good.”
If you weren’t so miserable in high school, where would you be today? For writers, angst is everything. Here’s a reblog:reblog by Hannah Goodman on turning high school’s funny and/or humiliating moments in literary gold.
I also write with a soundtrack. My novel, Merrily He Rolls Along, theatrical musical comedy with fiction. In my iTunes I’ve even created a special playlist for each chapter. Sometimes I imagine the voice I want to convey through whatever lyrics. But mostly, as this blogger writes, it about how the music makes me feel as I write.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by YA author Laura Pauling @laurapauling
To quote Randy Jackson from American Idol: ‘The transference of emotion is what the audience wants.’
Readers more than anything want to feel what we’re feeling when we put our hearts into a story. Whether it’s heartbreak, humour, revenge, sorrow…etc. And sometimes listening to the right kind of music, a certain song that pushes my heart to its limit, can transfer over to my writing.
Stories at your fingertips
So when I was writing A Spy Like Me, I…
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