Posted in Writing

Me and Mags, Episode 1: My Friend the Witch

Nothing like starting a new school in a new town in the middle of September on a Wednesday. I leaned on the bus window and breathed through my mouth to escape the aroma of vinyl and exhaust, trying to memorize the route to school. It was no use. I’d be helplessly lost without GPS, so I prayed my phone would have enough service to guide me home if I decided to skip out early.

My vintage Jansport with the rainbow patch occupied the seat next to me. I gripped its strap protectively. Who needs a friend when you have a backpack that smells like your childhood? Charcoal burgers and chlorine. Cinnamon sticks and attic dust. Our new house didn’t have an attic. It didn’t even have a garage.

A tall guy with a baseball cap got on the bus. He looked like trouble. I opened my backpack and rummaged around inside like I lost something important—my home? my life? my sanity?—and hoped he’d walk on by. He did. When I looked up again, a girl was standing next to my seat. Short blond hair, pink hairclip, retro 80’s t-shirt. She had a cell phone in one hand and a yogurt in the other. We locked eyes, and I made a move to pull my backpack aside, offer her a seat, but then her gaze drifted to the back of the bus, and she said, “There you are!” in a relieved voice. Later, when I looked back, I saw her sitting alone looking at her phone.

IMG_20190722_120159840We were stopped at a red light when I heard, “Watch this!” I turned around and saw Baseball Cap with an apple in his hand. He was lowering one of the windows. Outside, a girl with crazy curly brown hair and a small round Band-Aid on her nose was walking down the sidewalk. She had a leather satchel slung across her body and wore a long skirt and black combat boots. She was reading a book as she walked. With no warning, Baseball Cap threw the apple at her. Before I could hold my breath and hope it didn’t hit her, she caught the apple one-handed, took a large bite, then hurled it back at the bus. It smashed to pieces on the side. The light turned green. The boys around Baseball Cap hooted and hollered. The girl never took her eyes off her book.

*

It turns out, navigating a new school isn’t as hard as you might think. Looking for the library? Tail someone with a lot of books. Need the restroom? Follow the smell of perfume and vapes. Trying to get to the gym? Just swim against the stream of kids carrying violin cases. Math is math no matter what color the fake wood desks are, and the art of evasion is consistent across time zones: don’t engage, don’t make eye contact, look bored.

I kept my head down through my morning classes and spoke as little as possible, observing my new classmates from a wall of body language that I hoped said, “Leave me alone.” In English, a girl argued with the teacher about her grade in front of the entire room, then muttered “Freaking Communist” as she stomped back to her desk. A guy with smooth tawny skin and dark curly hair whispered, “Calm down, Shay,” but she shot back, “Shut up, Vik” and sneered at him.

For the most part, life went on around me, and no one paid me much attention until lunch, when Operation: Avoidance came to a screeching halt.

I’d been expecting a cavernous room of long, prison-like tables where I could slip into a vacant seat and eat my chicken salad and Cheetos unnoticed. Instead, this school’s cafeteria looked more like a coffee shop on a Sunday afternoon. Small tables of different sizes and shapes crowded into a space that wasn’t designed to accommodate them. Students filled most of the chairs and stools, while some lounged on the tile floor, picnic-style. Every table with an empty chair filled quickly as more students arrived, fist-bumping each other and sliding into seats they’d obviously claimed weeks ago.

Every table but one.

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At a small round table near the recycling bins sat the girl who caught Baseball Cap’s apple. Next to her were two empty chairs. I tightened my grip on my lunch bag and walked over. The girl was eating a bowl of noodles and reading a book, but she looked up when I approached. The Band-Aid on her nose was gone, but now there was one on her chin.

“Hi,” I said. “Is this seat taken?” I gestured to the chair on her left.

“Yes,” she said, “but the other one’s not. Care to join me?”

“Sure. Thanks.” I sat down in the vacant seat just as an empty Coke can went flying over the table. It hit the rim of one of the recycle bins, then bounced inside.

“Yes!” Baseball Cap high-fived a fellow cap-wearer, then smirked in our direction. “What happened, Maggot? Nick yourself shaving this morning?”

The girl turned a page in her book, then said, “Better a nick than a celery stick, Mr. Brand.”

He rolled his eyes. “Freak.” On his way back to his table, his foot slid out from under him. To avoid falling, he grabbed the shoulder of a girl seated nearby, spilling her Smart Water all over her and himself.

“What did he slip on?” the curly-haired girl asked.

“Huh?”

“What made him fall? Can you see?” She was standing up, craning her neck.

I squinted in the direction of the chaos. “It looks like a squished grape.”

The girl looked thoughtful. “Green or red?”

“Um… green.”

“Hmm.” She sat down and made a note in the book, which I realized now was actually a journal. Then she closed it and turned her gold-brown eyes on me. “I’m Magdalena,” she said. “People I like call me Mags.”

“Hi Mags,” I said. “I’m Hadley.”

I took my plastic container of chicken salad out of my lunch bag. Mags went back to slurping her noodles. No one ever sat down in the other seat.

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A few minutes before lunch ended, Mags shoved her empty bowl into a pocket of her satchel and closed her journal. “You’re new,” she said.

“Yep.” I licked Cheeto dust from my fingers. “Got any advice for me?”

Mags’ eyes lit up. “Tons,” she said. “For starters, never confuse nightshade with wolfsbane. Also, avoid the girls bathroom outside the library. It’s haunted.”

“Noted,” I said. The bell rang.

*

I didn’t see Mags again until 8th period AP Biology. The teacher, Ms. Archer, gave a pop quiz. She said I could take it “just to see how you do.” My last school was obviously ahead of this one because the questions were easy. I breezed through them, then went back and marked two answers wrong on purpose. Pretending I was still working, I snuck peeks over my cardboard privacy screen, scanning the room. Everyone had their heads down, working, until I got to Mags. Over her privacy screen, her eyes were fixed on me. She raised her quiz paper, as if to study it closely. On the back, in large, loopy, capital letters, it read “LUNCH TOMORROW?” I gave a quick nod, then went back to pretending to work.

*

After school, I got utterly, helplessly lost. I couldn’t find my locker because I was upstairs when I was supposed to be downstairs, and then I accidentally exited out the back of the school, instead of the side where the buses pick up. By the time, I got to where I was supposed to be, bus #313 was gone. I collapsed on a bench, dug out my phone and opened my map app. I was still sitting there, trying to figure out which direction I was supposed to walk when Mags appeared before me.

“Not a bus rider?” she asked.

“Not today.” I showed her my phone. “Can you point me the right way? I have a terrible sense of direction.”

Mags peered at the screen without touching it. “That’s where you live?”

I nodded.

“That’s close to me. I’ll walk with you.”

Mags walked fast and talked faster. She covered everything from politics to plant species to the perils of popularity in the span of a block. I tried to keep up.

“The biggest problem with teenagers today,” she said as we rounded a corner, “is that they don’t think for themselves anymore. Bunch of guppies, all of them.”

“You mean sheep?”

She shook her head. “Sheep don’t eat each other.”

I didn’t know what to say to that.

“Someday,” Mags said, “I’m going to turn this school into a fish tank. Can you imagine how awesome that will be? Standing outside, tapping on the glass, while all these wide-eyed mouth-breathers swim around in each other’s poop fighting for the crumbs we throw on top?”

“Um, yeah,” I said. “That does sound pretty awesome.”

When we got to my street, Mags pointed out my house and said, “Think you can make it from here?”

“Yeah, thanks. For everything—walking me home, letting me sit with you at lunch, the advice about wolfsbane.”

Mags tilted her head and raised one eyebrow. “Of course. After all, what are complete strangers for?”

*

“So, how was it?” Mom opened the pizza box and set down three plates.

Justin stuffed a slice in his mouth and gave a thumbs-up sign. Mom cracked open her sparkling water and gave me a sideways glance. “How about you? Did you talk to anyone?”

“It was ok,” I said. “I sat with a girl named Mags at lunch.”

Justin huffed, and a dot of tomato-sauce-spit flew out of his mouth. “Magdalena DeVille? She’s a witch.”

It didn’t bother me that after one day in a new town, my little brother already knew the ins and outs of not only his social circle but mine too. He’d always been plugged in to the gossip superhighway in a way I hadn’t, even at my most popular. I thought about what he’d said. Maybe Mags was a witch. I realized I didn’t care.

“Yeah,” I said. “She’s got some crazy idea about turning the high school into a fish tank.”

Mom and Justin froze, looking at me strangely. That’s when I heard it. That sound. That high, staccato sound that had been missing from my life for months.

I was laughing.

*

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

Posted in Reading

Because I Was Reading

A few years ago, I convinced myself that I knew my books (all 700-ish of them) so well that I could identify them merely by touch. I sat on the couch with my eyes closed and my hands over my ears while my husband brought me five books at a time. Then, keeping my eyes closed, I ran my hands over the covers, flipped the pages, felt for bookmarks, inhaled their scents, and generally absorbed their bookiness through my pores before making my guess.

I didn’t get a single one right.

This was very disappointing and also somewhat embarrassing, and the “See-you’re-crazy-I-told-you-so” smirk on my husband’s face only made matters worse. However, I still maintain that I know SOME of my books that well. He obviously just didn’t bring me the right ones.

Whether or not I know my books as well as I thought, it doesn’t take away from how much I love them. Reading is still my favorite thing to do, and I did it a lot in 2017, finishing 60 books that spanned fiction, nonfiction, YA, middle grade, adult, children’s, poetry, short stories, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, realistic fiction, historical fiction, comedy, classics, graphic novels, comics, audio books, and novels in verse. Whew! I consider that a job well done.

However, dedicating the hours necessary to finish 60 books in a year does mean there are times when other areas of life are neglected.

Chances are…

If you called me and I didn’t answer, it’s because I was reading.

If I showed up a little late to your gathering, it’s because I was reading.

If I left the tea kettle whistling until the water boiled away, it’s because I was reading.

If I forgot to feed the dog, it’s because I was reading.

If an announcement about a delayed flight made me smile, it’s because I was reading.

If I had tears in my eyes at a coffee shop, it’s because I was reading.

If I didn’t realize a cat had crawled into my lap, it’s because I was reading.

And if I fell asleep on the couch with the light on and a bookmark stuck to my face, it’s because I was reading.

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A few of my favorite 2017 reading spots (& reading companions)

In fact, the reason why this post didn’t come out on December 31st like I planned, is because I was reading. I was determined to finish one more book before the end of the year. (And I did.)

So, the question is… WHAT was I reading?

I read a lot of things last year, and I liked most of them. Here are a few favorites. (For a full list of what I read, check out my Goodreads page.)

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* The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud – An excellent end to an amazing series. Read my full review of this fifth and final book in the Lockwood & Co. series here.

Print* Falling Over Sideways by Jordan Sonnenblick – Sonnenblick has outdone himself with this novel. I didn’t think I’d ever love any of his books more than Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie, but Falling Over Sideways got it just right. Just absolutely perfectly right. An excellent read for middle schoolers, parents, teachers, and anyone who loves a good story.

25814154* The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell – I can’t express how much I loved The Madwoman Upstairs. It’s everything I wanted and needed from a summer read. Wit. Charm. Passionate book discussions. Literary scavenger hunts. Scandals. Secrets. A creepy old tower. The Brontes. This novel had it all. I listened to it on audio, read by Katie Koster, and it was fantastic. So fantastic, I bought the paper copy. Now I’m tempted to start over and read it again. So good.

24902132* Leaf and Beak: Sonnets by Scott Wiggerman – This poetry collection sat on my shelf for too long before I finally read it. Now, I don’t know why I waited. The sonnets follow the poet on his daily walks around his Austin neighborhood and are organized by the seasons, but there is nothing trite or expected from these elegant poems. The sonnets are both vivid and subtle, allowing the reader to stroll pleasantly through the verse while also inspiring her/him to pause and reflect at regular intervals. An excellent collection.

920607* The Arrival by Shaun Tan – Is it possible to “read” a book with no words? If you don’t think so, then you haven’t read The Arrival. This wordless story of a man leaving his homeland for a new country communicates the immigrant experience in a beautiful, intimate way.

17465707* Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro – I bought this book based on its adorable cover, and the inside didn’t disappoint. Still Writing is written in short essays, anecdotes, and tips. It reads easily and is a positive and encouraging take on the writing craft, while also being realistic. I took a lot of notes while reading it and put it down to write multiple times. (That’s how you know a writing book is good—it makes you WRITE.)

23203257* Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart – Lily, a transgender girl, and Dunkin, a boy with bipolar disorder, are both struggling through 8th grade. Their friendship will tug at your heart. At least, it tugged at mine.

19364719* Slasher Girls & Monster Boys edited by April Genevieve Tucholke – This anthology of teen horror stories by some of today’s best YA authors is way more gruesome and creepy and dark than I expected. I liked almost all of the stories, and several stayed with me long after I finished them, especially “In the Forest Dark and Deep” by Carrie Ryan. Thanks to that story, I’ll never be able to watch Alice in Wonderland without cringing again.

22840421* My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows – This book CRACKED. ME. UP. It’s a historical fantasy comedy romance. (Yeah, that’s a thing.) It’s like… if Game of Thrones met The Princess Bride except half the characters could turn into animals. You know what, just read it.

12948* (Not a favorite, but still one I want to mention) – The last book I read in 2017, the one I finished just a few hours before midnight, was The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, and I can’t decide what I think of it. I’m keeping my thoughts to myself for now because my book club will be discussing this classic horror novel in a couple of weeks, and I don’t want to give away all my conversation topics here, but I would love to know what others thought of it. Have you read it? Did you like it? (I promise not to steal your opinions for my book club. All clever critiques will be duly attributed during our discussion, I promise.)

So… the next question is… What will I read THIS year?

I hesitate to even post these titles because, if history is any indicator, books that I put on my “must-read” list often meet with procrastination, forgetfulness, or disappointment. But this year’s list is a winner, I can feel it. Here are ten books I definitely want to burrow into in 2018:

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  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (I already started this one and am enjoying it so far.)
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (This has been on my reading list for years. A friend gave me a beautiful purple copy for Christmas, so now I have no reason not to dive in.)
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (No, I’ve never read it. Don’t shun me. A student gave me a copy—again a gorgeous one—so I’m going to give this classic a try.)
  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino (My friend recommended this book. The summary sounds just as strange as the title. Wonderfully strange! I’m so excited to read it.)
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (I’ve watched this author’s TED talks and read her interviews. Everything she says is eloquent and gorgeous, so I expect her book will be the same.)
  • Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman (This has also been on my reading list for years. It feels like time to read it.)
  • Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford (I got this sequel to one of my favorite middle grade novels for my birthday but haven’t made time for it yet. I can’t wait to see what Milo is up to.)
  • Dreadnought by April Daniels (I’ve heard great things about this YA novel about a transgender superhero.)
  • Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey (Nova Ren Suma recommended this book during my workshop with her at Highlights. I don’t remember why anymore, but when Nova Ren Suma recommends something, you read it.)
  • The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming (A student highly recommended this book to me, and it meets my goals of reading more nonfiction and reading outside my comfort zone. Plus, the girl is brilliant, so I trust her.)

*

Well, there you have it. Books, books, and more books. I’d love to hear about your own reading achievements. What was your favorite read in 2017? What are your goals for 2018? And tell me what you thought of The Turn of the Screw! (It’s ok. You can be honest.)

Posted in Reading

Book Review: The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

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Title: Lockwood & Co: The Empty Grave
Author: Jonathan Stroud
My Rating: 5 stars

Rarely do I find a book or a series of books that I love as much as Lockwood & Co. by Jonathan Stroud. This weekend, I finished The Empty Grave, the fifth and final book in the series, and the feelings I have about these characters’ stories coming to an end are very bittersweet.

The Lockwood & Co. series is about teenage ghost hunters in London. It is set in a time when ghosts have become a big problem in society. Instead of just one or two popping up now and then, they’re everywhere, and they’re dangerous. Ghost-touch is fatal, and adults are especially vulnerable because they can’t see the spirits. Children and teenagers are the ones with the Talents– the ability to see, hear, and sometimes communicate with the dead– so they are the ones hired to fight the ghosts, locate their Sources, and seal them to protect the living. Most of the agencies have adult supervision, but not Lockwood & Co. This small, independent group works without adults, and they’re not afraid to break the rules (or burn a few houses down) to get the job done.

In The Empty Grave, the Lockwood team, consisting of Lucy Carlyle (the sensitive who can communicate with Type 3 ghosts), Anthony Lockwood (the confident, reckless leader of the group), George Cubbins (the always-messy, expert researcher), and their associates (Holly, Kipps, Flo, and the Skull in the jar) are homing in on something big. They think the head of the top agency in London is not who she claims to be and they may actually be close to solving the ghost problem. But in order to prove they’re right, they have to face more danger than ever before, and may even have to take a trip to The Other Side.

One of my favorite things about this book is the Skull in the jar. The Skull is a character in the story, an unusual one. He is the Source of the ghost of a teenage boy, but he’s trapped in a silver glass jar, so he’s not dangerous, and he can communicate with Lucy. He’s sarcastic and rude to her but sometimes helpful, and I love the interactions between them. In this book, the Skull keeps trying to persuade Lucy to let him out of the jar, though he’s not exactly convincing. Here’s an exchange from page 99 of The Empty Grave:

“‘Say I let you out. What would you do?’
I’d flit about. Stretch my plasm. Might strangle Cubbins. Carry out a spot of casual ghost-touch, now and again. Just simple hobbies.’

I think the author writes the Skull’s voice really well. Although he can be a giant pain to Lucy, I love his wit and humor and enjoy listening to his snide remarks.

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How I spent my Saturday…

I love to read, but I am often a slow reader. However, I flew through The Empty Grave, finishing this 437-page book in less than a week. On Saturday, I read for hours, losing a few fingernails and gaining a LOT of calories in the meantime. (I like to snack while I read.) I kept trying to put the book down to do chores or grade papers, but I couldn’t stay away for long. I couldn’t leave my favorite characters alone in such desperate situations. I had to go back. I had to know what happened next. That’s another reason why I love Jonathan Stroud’s books. His characters feel like friends. I’m never lonely when I’m hanging out with Lucy and Lockwood and George. (And the Skull in the jar.)

That brings me to the only thing I didn’t like about The Empty Grave: it ended. I loved the book, but I hate that this story is over. I will miss my character friends. However, there is a way to keep in touch with them. YOU can read the books, and you can tell me what they’re up to. I’d really like that.

If the Lockwood & Co. series sounds like something you would enjoy, start with book one, The Screaming Staircase, and tell my friends hello for me.