Fact: I am in love with strangeness.
I am forever fascinated with all things weird mostly because I believe it is everywhere, in everyone. Sometimes we’re so blinded by our mundane everydays that we fail to see an outrageously simple reality: There’s no one else like you in the world. All the sappy self-help books in the planet would tell you that despite all our similarities, every single one of us is unique. These days I’ve been finding myself pausing a lot and just mulling over the gravity of that fact and letting it play carousels inside my head.
What makes you weird makes you extraordinary. Hot damn.
For March I have read six wonderful books featuring characters with varying levels of quirk; people who are, in many ways, different from the society or the world they live or grew up in, whether they meant to or not. People who never seemed to fit in or belong anywhere besides the shell of their own selves. People who have stories that transcend the bizaare, the macabre, the wildest of imaginations. People who defied to be forgotten by becoming one-of-a-kind—in good ways, in bad ways, in OMGWTF ways.
You and I, we are all misfits just wanting to find our places under the sun. Some of us find it in the hollows of the high school hierarchy, or a house full of strangers, or in the pursuit of possessing things. Some find it in letters from the future, or an imagined memory of a jungle several oceans away, or even just a place to safely dream of freedom.
Me? I find it in between the pages of books.
Aptly, I have started the month by reading Andrea Portes’ Anatomy of a Misfit, a coming of age story told in the hilarious and harsh voice of Anika, the third most popular girl in her high school. It’s refreshing to read from the perspective of the Queen Bitch’s sidekick for once because we get a first hand account from someone in the gray dead-center of the classic teenage pressure—someone who’s not really the goody-two-shoes overachiever, but is neither the alpha mean girl who inflicts horrors on everyone’s lives. It’s a story of many conflicts and choices: fame or friendship? Being cool or being true to yourself? And why can’t we ever have both? The writing is witty and the memorable one-liners abound although the humor sometimes borders on brutally offensive. The ending was a bittersweet shocker but somehow it felt sloppily executed and dissatisfying. Ah, the what-could-have-beens still make me sigh so hard.
Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7’s is about a twelve-year old genius with almost non-existent social skills. Her name is Willow and she’s the only one in the entire state who perfected the standard exam for her grade in less than seventeen minutes, she taught herself the Vietnamese language in two weeks, oh and her hobby includes studying medical surgery and botany. Did I mention she’s twelve? Do I sound like a bitter twenty-something loser? Because yeah, I admit I was openly rolling my eyes in disbelief for the first couple of chapters. She’s so smart and indifferent that even I as the reader felt emotionally disconnected to her. But I guess that’s the charm of her personality—she doesn’t aim to be likeable and it will never be her priority to gain people’s sympathy. She one day loses her adoptive parents in a car accident and was therefore thrust into a world of complete strangers whose lives she changed and changed her too, in return. It was a bit humdrum for the first couple of chapters but things picked up halfway through, building a steady momentum towards a feel-good conclusion. Reading how she unknowingly changes the lives of people around her is both infuriating and heart-tugging. Infuriating, because it’s inexplicable and almost unrealistic how these strangers are magically compelled to do everything for her, and how much of their lives they have sacrificed for her sake. Heart-tugging, because it’s so life-affirming how she learns that surviving a catastrophe takes more than just having an off-the-charts IQ. That you don’t have to be a genius to know the mindblowing fact that people always needs people, and there’s always someone out there who’s gonna be there for you no matter what.
Of all the books I’ve read for this month, William March’s The Bad Seed had me thinking the hardest. It’s a 1950’s classic about an eight-year old serial killer. Sure, the evil child trope is nothing new nowadays, but this was written in the 1950’s, during the heyday of Freudianism and psychoanalysis but even way before the surge of real-life serial killers that happened in the late 80’s. The writing is gripping and the dilemma is so excellently crafted and written I swear to god my head still pounds in pain when I think of it. The story is presented from the point of view of the child-killer’s mother, a plot device so cunning and intelligent because the unraveling of her mind as she learns about the true ways of her daughter is the perfect portrait of the reader as each horrific layer of the story unfolds on every chapter. AND HOLY CRAP THAT ENDING OH MY GOD I HAVE NO WORDS. I was so distraught and hung-over over this book that I spent the next two days googling biographies of true serial killers sensationalized in the media. Heck, I even narrated the whole novel to my family and got them all engaged on a heated debate about the ending. The conversation went all the way till the wee hours of the morning.
This is Matthew Quick’s Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock in one word: INTENSE. Reading it felt like holding a ticking time-bomb in your hands and praying with all your heart that it doesn’t explode. Leonard Peacock is your standard troubled kid but his issues run deeper than stereotypical adolescent angst. He’s flawed like a lot of us: jaded, melodramatic and at times, insensitive, but he’s also wounded in the most heartbreaking ways and he tries so goddamn hard to find a reason to live and hang on. The book chronicles a day in his life—the day he’s about to execute his plan to take a gun to school to shoot a bully and commit suicide in front of everyone. It’s scary, adrenaline-driven, emotional, terrifying. The raw honesty and the bleak dysfunction of the world he grew up in gripped my attention and didn’t let me go till the last page. Like the character, I’m so glad I held on till the end. I came out of this book bruised and beaten and a better person.
I’ve been wanting to read Alexandra Bracken’s The Darkest Minds trilogy for the longest time and I’m so glad I finally got to start on the first book this month. It tells the story of the kids who survived a mysterious epidemic that killed almost two-thirds of the youth population in the United States, kids who developed supernatural abilities and who were therefore branded ‘freaks’ by the government and were forced to rehabilitate in camps like a modern holocaust of sorts. The storytelling is razor-sharp and the dystopian world-building is assured and excellent. I won’t be surprised at all if this gets picked up for a live-action movie adaptation too because it is action-packed and full of high-stake risks and life-and-death chase. The last chapter was written with such melancholy, I still wince in pain at the memory of the final scene. Even now, I still replay it inside my head on endless loop. I still cry. Yes, I’d be reading the next book reaaaaaal soon.
I’ve chosen to wrap-up the month with A.S. King’s Everybody Sees the Ants because if there’s one thing I have learned from reading Reality Boy last year, it’s the fact that A.S. King writes YA like a boss. Reality Boy made it to my list of all-time favorites because of its honesty, its humor and its heart, and I’m happy to report that all of these elements are also present in The Ants. It’s dark and cynical and written with such deep understanding of compassion, and most importantly, that warm small glimmer of hope. If I’m going to be honest, I would say I didn’t love it as much as I loved Reality Boy, but I loved it nonetheless. Lucky Linderman is a great protagonist you will root for—he’s another great testament to A.S. King’s flawless creation of characters. She has a knack for breathing life into these imaginary beings on paper and making them so real, you could almost feel their pulse through the chapters. Through her characters’ lives, we see a whole new way of seeing the world and the people in it. It’s like being handed a new pair of eyes and looking at things in high-definition clarity. You will believe her—you will see the ants, too.
►Book Ratings (in order of reading sequence)
Anatomy of a Misfit ★★★☆☆
Counting by 7’s ★★★★☆
The Bad Seed ★★★★☆
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock ★★★★☆
The Darkest Minds ★★★☆☆
Everybody Sees the Ants ★★★★☆
►Book Cover Design of the Month
Okay so before anything else, let’s keep in mind that this is a book printed in the 1950s and frankly looks a bit outdated. You could say it can be greatly improved by the amazing wonders of modern photoshop but I would still vastly prefer this cover. I’ve never been big on dolls when I was a kid but I agree nonetheless that dolls timelessly capture the seemingly pristine and innocent facade of childhood. It’s so accurately creepy and haunting and therefore effectively sets the eerie hollowness of the titular evil kid who looks harmless on the outside with her pigtails and pretty pink dresses but whose heart is as inanimate as cold plastic.
►Book Quote of the Month
“I feel like I’m broken—like I don’t fit together anymore.Like there’s no more room for me in the world or something. Like I’ve overstayed my welcome here on Earth, and everyone’s trying to give me hints about that constantly. Like I should just check out.”
-Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock
►Favorite Literary Characters
Leonard, the troubled hero of the book, said that the world would be a better place if they gave medals to great teachers rather than just soldiers. If it were the case, Herr Silverman deserves medals for being both. Teachers are very important figures of authority that shape every young people’s lives but in fiction they aren’t usually given vivid detail and depth and are mostly relegated to minor roles who are sadly ineffectual pretty much all the darn time. Herr Silverman is a triumph of a character because he is a rarity among his species: he welcomes each of his student to his class with a firm handshake because he cares genuinely about their welfare and would come rushing on a taxi cab in the middle of the night at a phone call to come to their rescue. He’s an exemplary teacher but also an admirable soldier: he doesn’t downplay the pains of being young and instead recognizes its dangers. He understands how hard it is but he goes out of his way to keep kids hanging on, to tell them it’ll get better when everything else seems unbearably worthless. He believes that not letting the world destroy you is a daily battle. And he wins it.
This might be a wee bit biased but I’ve come to like Ruby because she reminded me a lot of myself. She’s very introspective and contemplative about things, and the fact that she has the superpower I’ve most wanted to have (reading and manipulating minds of people) makes her truly relatable. There was a phase during the earlier years in her life at when she hasn’t spoken for several years and there was a time towards the ending of the book when she made the ultimate sacrifice of erasing herself from the boy she loves to set him free and not to sound so pompous or anything but I could totally see myself making the same decisions given the chance that I find myself in her shoes. I understand her pain and I loved her all the more for it.
►Worst Book of the Month
First and foremost, this: Anatomy of a Misfit is not a badly written book. Its irreverent humor is fresh and witty, its poignant moments, bittersweet. The ending has a lot of squandered potential, methinks, but overall, it’s still an okay story. Then again, that’s the thing about being just an okay book—when stacked alongside great novels, it tends to pale in comparison, fading under the brilliance of books written with such unforgettable brand of excellence. The most important thing I’ve learned about this book is to never ever settle for mediocrity; write an extremely crappy book or an extraordinary one. Dang, I don’t care how you do it but please, for the love of literature: STRIVE TO BE MEMORABLE.
►Best Book of the Month
Forgive me, Leonard Peacock
When we think of misfits, we think: outcast, odd, loser, rejects. Forgive me, Leonard Peacock takes us in the precipice of a misfit’s mind in order for us to understand how truly unbearable the world feels like from their shoulders.Now, when I think of misfits, I think: someone who just wants to belong, someone who wants to be okay, someone who needs to find a home. Leonard’s story makes us see the painful struggle of finding a reason to live and stay alive amidst the seemingly infinite reasons why we should give up. This book throbs with a violence so tangible, a loneliness so sharp and disturbing. Its triumph is in magnifying what makes a person want to die, and it ended by magnifying why there’s an even bigger reason why a person should carry on living. It will make you ask: have I loved people enough? Because sometimes you don’t really need to speak in sonnets in telling a person how much they mean to you; sometimes just remembering to greet them on their birthday is more than enough to save their life. Read this book because it’s a letter to you and to everyone you care about: more than the tightest of hugs, it is a pat on the back for a job well done of striving through the hardships of life, a salute for those who wake up in the morning with plans of how to end the pain once and for all but still soldiering on for one more day. You are different, you are beautiful. Thank you for hanging on, here’s to many more birthdays in the future.