Friday, July 23, 2010

Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead

Frank Meeink and Jody M. Roy tell of Meeink’s story childhood spent raised by alcoholics and drug addicts on the low-end of the working class spectrum in Philadelphia. Despite a loving extended family, no one protects Meeink from savage beatings from his stepfather, the emotional abuse and indifference from both his mother and father, and the constant fear he lives in as he bounces around low-performing, dangerous elementary and middle schools. An all too brief childhood filled with severe violence and neglect makes him an easy target for recruitment when he visits his cousin in rural Pennsylvania. Older neo-Nazi teens are interested in his development and protection, something he hasn’t regularly experienced in his life. They act as mentors, friends, and a de facto family as they indoctrinate him into the movement.

Upon his return to Philadelphia at 14, Frank becomes, for the first time in his life, a leader, a strategist, an entrepreneur, and an absolutely feared person as the head of the local neo-Nazi movement. Meeink takes the reader on a horrifying journey of rage and hate, allowing a look behind the curtain into how a virtually homeless teen boy finds a sense of family in a group created around a twisted ideology of white identify. The book provides fascinating details about The Movement – everything from fashion to regional differences in organizing. Meeink does not censor the rage and alcohol-fueled actions he committed for years as the leader of Strike Force, a gang of neo-Nazi teams he created and led. In fact, he recounts the pride he felt when a neo-Nazi leader, freshly released from prison, joins Meeink and his friends in savagely beating homosexuals outside of a bar. “Shoulder to should with my comrades, back up against the wall, awaiting my first trip to juvie in the glow of Scott Windham’s approving smile, I felt proud, truly proud, for the first time.”

Eventually, Meeink’s actions in Philadelphia finally force him to flee (with the help of a neo-Nazi mentor) to the Midwest, where he descends further into violence and madness. After brutally kidnapping and torturing a member of his new group of recruits, or freshcuts, Meeink lands in prison. As he headed to prison, Meeink was a leader in the young neo-Nazi movement, an alcoholic, and soon-to-be father. He was 17.

His innate street smarts and his role as a neo-Nazi leader outside prison walls ensured he survived and, in many ways, flourished during his time in prison. But the neo-Nazis who protected him inside and revered him outside couldn’t foresee the epiphany he would have behind bars that would ultimately lead to his redemption. During his time in prison Meeink ends up playing football with Vice Lords and becoming close friends with two African American teen prisoners. They commiserate, like teens everywhere, about what their girlfriends are doing when they aren’t around, and helping each other decode secret messages of infidelity in letters and phone calls home. For the first time ever, Meeink lives with the “mud” he had been indoctrinated to hate and the holes in the neo-Nazi ideology he had held so dear become quickly apparent to the middle school dropout.

Of course, it’s not that easy to walk away from the only life Meeink has known. Upon his return to Philly, Meeink reunites with the Strike Force, but he’s not the only one who has changed. Friends and family have died, become strung out on drugs, or left the Movement. Meeink quickly turns to drugs and returns to drinking to numb his confusion and rage. He can’t live as a leader in a movement he doesn’t believe in anymore and his day of reckoning is violent and appalling, giving him another excuse to lose himself in drugs and alcohol.

Meeink’s ideological redemption ran parallel to his descent into drug addiction and alcoholism. As he found meaning in his work with the Anti-Defamation League, telling the truth about his actions as a neo-Nazi, he becomes an even bigger liar as he spends days shooting up and stealing Oxycontin from his mother. Just as it did with the neo-Nazis, Meeink faces a day of reckoning with his drug and alcohol use that is violent and heartbreaking.

Fans of Edward Norton's American History X will find this book even more compelling than that movie. 

Listen to Frank Meeink on NPR and read an excerpt.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Left Hand of God

Thomas Cale is being raised in the Hogwarts from Hell, the Sanctuary.  The Sanctuary is an orphanage/training camp for the young acolytes of the Redeemers, warrior monks tasked by God to wipe out non-believers and infidels.  Cale is the star pupil of The Lord Militant Reedemer Bosco, which means he is drilled on military strategies and other points of Redeemer doctrine mercilessly and savagely punished for infractions, real or imagined.  Cale is hardened after 14 (or 15, no one has been counting) years of living in the Sanctuary, survival instincts honed to perfection.  He is clever, fearless, and ruthless.

While Cale is a warrior-in-training with the mindset of the toughest prisoner, he is still a brave teenage boy.  Although he tries to rebuff any friendly overtures in the name of survival, he reluctantly becomes friends with Kleist and Vague Henri, both warriors-in-training themselves.  A series of events allow Cale to use his survival skills for good and rescue an innocent teen girl, Riba, and escape The Sanctuary with Kleist and Vague Henri.

And so the odd foursome begins truly begins their adventure.  It is a strange and gripping journey to survive the Redeemers who seek them and also survive the politics and intrigue of the city that takes them in, Memphis.  Four teenagers, three trained killers, are put to use by the politicians and ruling class of Memphis, the Materazzi, and have to put the survival skills they learned under the watchful eyes of the Redeemers to good use against the schemers of Memphis high society.

But this is truly the story of Cale, a survivor. He shakes up the Materazzi by challenging their pecking order, wooing the most beautiful girl in the city, and brashly showing the revered military leaders how they must fight The Redeemers if they want to win.  But his sheer ability to survive foreshadows something special about Cale, something the Redeemers want back.

Hoffman writes amazing scenes of battle and intrigue, full of violence and gore.  He creates layers upon layers of Redeemer history and lore and builds an entire Memphis society.  Cale is a multi-dimensional teen killer – raging hormones and ice-cold blood running through his veins.

The Left Hand of God is a fantasy adventure with loads of appeal for a reluctant fantasy fan like me. Cale is the ultimate bad boy. He takes a lot of pride in being smart, as well as completely ruthless and fans of badass but sexy vampires and werewolves might find his character intriguing.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Patterns of Paper Monsters

The Patterns of Paper Monsters kept me up all night, my heart pounding towards the end to see if the nightmare scenario proposed by one of the characters comes to fruition.

It is the story of 16 year-old Jacob, a rebel with cause. He is locked up in a juvenile detention facility for, what the reader comes to find out during flashbacks, is the drug-fueled armed robbery of a convenience store and assault of its lone employee. Jacob’s peers, counselor, teachers, and guards find him reticent and moody. But while his exterior is flinty, Jacob’s reflections on those around him at the detention center, as well as his mother and stepfather, The Refrigerator Man, are incredibly insightful. Like so many teens, Jacob feels like no one could possibly understand or appreciate what he’s already been through and how hopeless he feels.

Little-by-little Jacob lets his guard down as Andrea, a new girl at the detention center, catches his eye and becomes both his friend and the closest thing to a girlfriend he can have while incarcerated. Jacob even begins to open up to his adult mentor, acknowledging sincere efforts to befriend him. In a strange way, the detention facility is safer and saner than home itself. His vulnerability and growing contentment are threatened when David, an extremely disturbing and violent teen, is sent to the detention center and becomes determined to enlist Jacob in his twisted plans. Because of David’s diabolical actions, Jacob literally must choose between good and evil. The reader, knowing all that Jacob has learned about hate and violence his entire life, but hopeful that his intelligence and core goodness will win the day, will be shocked to find which path he chooses. There are no happy endings in The Patterns of Paper Monsters.

Emma Rathbone has created a truly fascinating teen character in Jacob. He is the son of a sad, neglectful, alcoholic mother who allows both herself and Jacob to be terrorized by Refrigerator Man. Jacob’s anger and sadness boil just below the surface, fueled by his extreme intelligence. Once his anger and neglect lead him to drugs, violence, and eventually the detention facility, it’s not hard to see why teachers and counselors take time to help him – there’s something special about the way Jacob sees the world.

Rathbone also does an excellent job creating a sense of place – the sterility of both the detention facility and the sprawling, generic suburbs that surround it. The scene reflects the characters so well, demonstrating that there is more going on behind the bland facades seen in so much of chain store America.

I'm surprised this wasn't published as YA, as I think teens will identify with Jacob’s sullen, sharp intelligence, as well as his exasperation with what he sees as the hypocrisy and stupidity that surrounds him. Adults failed him for much of his life, but the ones who took the time and made the effort end up creating the biggest impact - a sentiment I personally loved.

A Hachette representative at the 2010 Annual American Library Association Conference was nice enough to give me an Advanced Readers Copy. The book will be available on August 9, 2010

Friday, July 9, 2010

Shit My Dad Says

Shit My Dad Says is, hopefully, a hint of things to come – an excellently conceived, written, and edited memoir based on a Twitter feed. All that being said, it is one of the most soul stirring, balls-out funny books I’ve ever read. I laughed. I laughed so hard I cried. I cried on the subway from laughing. I laughed and cried during rush hour in New York City and I wanted very badly to read the book aloud to my neighbors on the crowded train. Luckily, everyone was giving me a very wide berth.

Justin Halpern skillfully takes the hilarious, often lewd sentiments that come out of his Dad’s mouth and uses them as a funny foundation on which he recalls pivotal moments in his childhood, teen years, and young adulthood. It’s clear that Halpern himself finds his Dad hilarious, but he takes his amusement and crafts a truly poignant read. He manages to relate a fully fleshed out Sam Halpern – a kid who grew up poor, a Vietnam veteran, a scientist and doctor, and a passionately loving husband and father. In addition, Halpern is fully willing to relate stories of his own follies and stupidity, showing over and over how his Dad set him straight or saved him in his own, unique fashion.

Shit My Dad Says is Halpern’s story of growing up, but it’s also the story of his growing love and appreciation for his father. He manages to make his profanity-laced twitter feed and the obvious admiration has for the father that originates those hilarious bon mots into a book full of love, laughs, and (dare I say it?) life lessons.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is magically real, really magical, and magic realism. It is the story of Rose, who can taste the emotions and secrets of the person who prepares the food she eats. She becomes so attuned to food that she is eventually able to taste the actual origin of each individual ingredient. This ability is rarely a blessing and usually feels like a curse, as she learns more about the inner secrets of her family, as well as complete strangers. As Rose moves from childhood and into young adulthood, she develops coping mechanisms around food and eating, in order to protect her own heart and mind.

But Rose is not the only gifted member of her family. Her brother is brilliant and aloof, hiding his own haunting gift from those who love him. Both her mother and father struggle with their own preoccupations and desire and Rose is all too aware of their emotions as they share meal after meal. I loved Rose’s voice – it changes and matures as she goes from a happy 9 year-old to a teenager dealing with her anger and ultimate outsider status and into her young adulthood, where she begins to figure out the blessings involved with her gift and finally deal with the vulnerability and isolation it has brought.

Bender creates not only an authentic, beautifully crafted character in Rose, she also builds a truly nuanced, extraordinary family in the Edelsteins. Each member is struggling to find their own gift, protect their own happiness, and love each other in the best ways they know how and it is heartbreakingly real. Other family members are as gifted as Rose, in both magical and real ways, and their journeys are amazing to experience through Rose’s eyes. Bender paces the emergence of Rose’s ability and the inner upheaval in her family perfectly. She emerges a young adult for which the reader feels the pride, relief, and worry of a parent.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


I'd rather read than sleep. I've always been a big reader, as far back as I can remember. One of my favorite things as a kid was to create a huge tower of books at the library, check them out and take them home, and read them all before they were due. It felt then (and still does) like the ultimate gluttony - all the books I can read and all the time I need to do it.

I'm a public librarian in a very large metropolitan city now and serve on a book award committee. I'm so lucky to be an adult surrounded by all the books I can read. Time is what stands in my way now, but I don't mind skipping a little sleep in order to read!

As a reader and librarian, I love to recommend books. I know not everyone wants to or can read as much as I do, so I love finding the right book for the right reader.