Review: Hilary McKay’s Casson Family Series (2001-2007)

The Books:

Saffy’s Angel, Indigo’s Star, Permanent Rose, Caddy Ever After, and Forever Rose by Hilary McKay.

cassonfam

My Rating:

BuyIt

Review:

Meet the Cassons, an eclectic family of artists living in modern day England. Eve names her children from a paint chart and teaches juvenile delinquents to draw. Bill lives in London and rents a stylish flat away from his children, whom he blithely does not understand. The children?

Caddy, who raises hamsters and is in love with her driving instructor,

Indigo, who refers to his sisters as his “wolf pack” and hangs from two story windows (to defeat his fear of heights),

Saffy, who wants to belong so much that she keeps everyone at arm’s length,

And Rose, who is possibly the most interesting child ever to grow up between the pages of a book. When you meet her, however, she is sucking on a tube of white paint. Why?

“White’s sweet,” Caddy explains to the visiting health worker.

Because what other explanation would a Casson need?

Though this series left me smiling through tears, rising from my couch to hug the first living organism I saw, I can’t describe these as feel-good books. In feel-good books, the characters learn tough life lessons and everything goes right.

In the Casson family series, the characters learn tough life lessons and everything is chaos.

Mostly the fun kind. That’s not to say that serious themes—like shaky marriages, learning disabilities, and abandonment complexes—aren’t well explored. But much like a real family, the Cassons inhabit their dilapidated, paint-splattered, rodent-infested house while oblivious to their own quirks. I couldn’t read these books without laughing, but I also could imagine six pairs of artistic Casson eyes staring back at me, politely wondering what on earth I found so funny.

Hilary McKay ‘s ingenuity shows through the simplicity of each plotline. Saffy, for instance, wants to find a stone angel in Siena, Caddy wants (and doesn’t want) to marry Michael, Indigo wants no person to be forgotten, and Rose wants—with the unmixed passion of an 8-year-old—a boy named Tom. Yet for all the simplicity, you care. Immensely. Your heart rises and sinks with each triumph and setback, giving you an idea of just how much these people mean to each other.

I applaud McKay’s courage to try different styles of narrative with each novel. Saffy’s Angel and Indigo’s Star, for example, are written completely in third person, whereas Permanent Rose and Caddy Ever After are in first person, split between each of the children (though Rose undeniably steals the show). Rose alone narrates the series’ conclusion, Forever Rose. Though McKay doesn’t always reflect the development of the narrator—Rose narrates Permanent Rose, for example, at age 8, but sounds much the same in Forever Rose at age 11—the text is invariably clever, well-paced, and engaging.

I didn’t believe the books were over when I finished. By the last page, I knew the Cassons so well that I felt like one myself. This series offers not a good story but also a family—one you’ll keep close for a long time.

Note: McKay more recently released a prequel to the Casson Family series, Caddy’s World, that I’ve yet to get my hands on. If you beat me to it, comment and tell me what you think!

The Writer’s Toolkit: 5 Ways a Notebook Beats the Computer

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Angel Coulby, still from Merlin

I’ll admit: when I first started writing in notebooks, my reasons were less than practical.

Those were the naive days when I still viewed writing as glamorous. I thought only spunky, beautiful women wrote novels, scribbling away in attics until publishers chucked six-figure book deals on their doorsteps. My notebook possessed a romance completely absent from my laptop. Whenever I rose to find my fingernails, desk, and blouse ruined from ink stains, I would nod and think, Yes: Behold the scars of my literary genius. Only a poser, after all, would emerge from the battle of first drafts with spotless hands (and clean shirts).

Worked for Jo. And her sleeves aren't even that dirty.

Worked for Jo. And her sleeves aren’t even that dirty.

Of course, once I learned that writing was less about midnight inspirations and an entourage of imaginary friends, and more about hours of research and hard work, notebooks grew less attractive. Computers were just so easy. I was no Luddite. In my world, convenience reigned supreme. I could type as fast as I could think; I could move things around without awkward dashes and and arrows. Best of all, I could integrate previous drafts without rewriting anything. Copy, paste, and presto: a month’s smattering of ideas, all in the same place.

But I never managed to shake my notebook addiction. Perhaps old habits die hard…or perhaps a part of me will always romanticize writing, no matter how many times I’ve been on my third cup of weak tea and the cursor still blinks, blinks, blinks on an empty page. Over the years, however, I’ve realized that notebooks are more than security blankets. They’re actually invaluable to a writing process, and here’s why.

Reason 1) They’re portable.

Unlike your laptop, a notebook can be swept off a desk in a hurry. You don’t need to haul cords or protective casing everywhere, and you never have to camp by power outlets. More importantly, notebooks come in every size. I invest in big ones for intensive work, and pocket-sized ones for when I don’t intend to write.

But I still take it. Always. Photo on 2011-12-25 at 19.13 #3

Fact: if you carry a notebook, you will use it. You know those fleeting moments when you have Possibly The Most Brilliant Idea You’ve Ever Had– a Pulitzer Prize worthy character idea, or the solution to that plot loophole that’s been torturing you for weeks? Funny how those always happen when you’re miles away from paper, but you swear you’ll remember it for later.

Yeah. You won’t.

Think of all the inane things you do with dead time, in between commitments or standing in line. Most of us check our email every few minutes; those slightly more conscientious might bring along a book. But what if every time you reached for your phone, you reached for your notebook instead? Even if only to jot a few sentences, a word, or to browse whatever you’ve written so far. You’d be surprised how much flows when you prime the pump…and nothing passes time more quickly than a paragraph gaining momentum.

Reason 2) They’re more suited to outlines than computers.

Word processors encourage you to think in lines. You can go sideways, up, or down– space button, backspace, return button. But that’s not the way story boarding works, regardless of whether you’re writing fiction, non-fiction, or a blog post. Details become pertinent as you write them out; you make make crucial rabbit trails, elaborating in some parts, saving other areas for later.

Can Microsoft Word do this? Nope. No room for my bird, either.

Can Microsoft Word do this? Nope. No room for my bird, either.

On a page, you can think in any direction you darn well please. You don’t have to stifle details because they’re not relevant to the central plot line. You can rant for as long as you like, to the side, and then snap right back on track. Huge, unlined notebooks are especially wonderful for outlines, though small ones work just as well for smaller scenes or character brainstorming.

Reason 3) You won’t get distracted (as easily).

Six words: No Facebook, no email, no Youtube. Need I say more?

Nothing kills a work ethic watching Richard Armitage interviews. He's like Kryptonite...gorgeous, gorgeous Kryptonite.

Nothing kills a work ethic watching Richard Armitage interviews. He’s like Kryptonite…gorgeous, gorgeous Kryptonite.

You can always turn off the wifi on your computer, of course, but you’ll still click your browser out of habit…and it  takes Herculean will power not to turn the internet back on. In contrast, when your pen hovers over a page, the only thing it can do is…well, make more words.

Reason 4) They are so freaking fun to shop for.

I won’t lie: I have an insane amount of notebooks. More than I could fill in years, all different sizes, colors, personalities, and to all of which I have a Gollum-like attachment (especially the Paperblank Precious. We love the college-ruled and Italian leather binding, don’t we? It will never be false. It loves us forever…) I even have little christenings when I start a new one, engraving my name on the title page in curly script.

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And maybe cry a bit when I finish one.

Don’t judge.

Here’s the main thing: if you have them, you will want to fill them. Surprisingly, the stacks of empty, glittering books filling my closet have never discouraged me. Rather, they feel like an investment in myself; a promise that I’m not a hit-and-run. A pact that someday, I will have a body of work big enough to fill all the Preciouses.

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I’ll leave off the titillating details of how to find and purchase your perfect notebook, which could (and will) be a blog post in itself. But seriously: so many choices.

Reason 5) They don’t have a backspace button.

This button is possibly the most fatal feature of a computer.  Every draft of your work is valuable- not just major changes but also minor descriptions, dialogue, plot details. It’s not impossible to save these on a computer, but they seldom survive, due to the ruthlessly efficient way in which we edit a digital document. Name doesn’t sound right? Delete. Don’t like the way that scene ended? Delete. Don’t need that person in the story after all? ViveLaGuillotineDelete. 

My handwriting: mad scientist scrawl or elvish script? Can't decide.

My handwriting: mad scientist scrawl or elvish script? You decide.

More often than not, you include things in first drafts for a reason. If you change your mind once, you can do it again. I’ve dismissed countless scenes in notebooks, only to look back through the crossed-out lines eons later and think, “Hey. That’s actually pretty good.” Even if I still don’t use it, often my story “bloopers” include details I need to flesh out a setting or character. As children’s novel goddess Gail Carson Levine chants in Writing Magic: always, always save what you wrote.

Of course:

Computers are irrevocably necessary, and always will be. But maybe it’s time to expand your toolbox. Go on a quest for the perfect notebook and pen. Put away all your electronics on a quiet evening and light some candles. Get your fingers dirty.

Write.

Photo on 2012-09-04 at 20.57

New posts every Friday at jordanifueko.com!

The Top 5 Myths about Natural Hair

Jordan Ifueko

If your childhood was anything like mine, you probably associate “natural hair” with a horror-film sequence of screaming, detangler spray, and combs that (almost) embody Satan’s wrath. You mother did her best to shape the formidable jungle on your head for school, church, or bedtime. No matter how her eardrums rattled, however, or your head ached, or curlicues of defeated hair clogged your shower drain, you both knew it was Just Until.

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About to go all Bertha Mason up in here.

Just until the next appointment with the braider. Just until the next bottle of relaxer. Just until a weave you could afford. Just until another three hours with the  flattening iron. Then it would be over, for a while. Perhaps between the “long-term” styles, it didn’t even seem like your real hair. That girl in the mirror, the one with the springy fro, or “mickey puffs,” or fluffy twists or cornrows- that wasn’t you. After all, you had hundreds of shiny braids (never mind how much you paid for the pricy extensions) or the sleek, straightened-as-humanly-possible locks (though you feared rainclouds like the Eye of Sauron).

I SEE YOU. And I don't care how long you spent with the hair iron.

I SEE YOU. And I don’t care how long you spent with your flattening iron.

It was when I first caught myself thinking this way that I began to feel nervous. Did I really wrap that much of my identity in extensions, hair that wasn’t even mine? Or in a bottle that promised to make my hair as smooth, straight, and un-Africa-like as possible? How was it that I could spend hours yelling about sexism and racism and rebellion against society’s standards for the female body…when I wasn’t even comfortable with the way my hair grew out of my head?

No humans were scalped in the making of these extensions.

No humans were scalped in the making of these extensions.

For a while I made excuses. I remembered the cringe-worthy reality show of “Jordan’s Childhood Hair Time,” when my mother and I both awaited the morning shower like District Twelve on Reaping Day. I told myself it was too hard, too time-consuming, perhaps not even healthy. But still, for some strange reason I was curious. So I put off my next braiding appointment. I browsed a few style articles online. I subscribed to a black hair channel on YouTube. Two years later I am still in natural hair, and can’t imagine going back. I’ve since attended college full-time, earned a Bachelor’s degree, and acquired a white-collar office job, none of the places or activities considered “safe” to have natural hair without being judged- or being late (from the battle to look “just right”). Yet here I am thriving, and I’m beginning to realize what kept me from making the leap so long: fear. Fear of disasters that never happened. Fear that people would think I looked weird. Fear of inconveniences that, in all honestly, did happen, and then stopped. Because here’s the thing: natural hair isn’t the big, bad beast we’ve been conditioned (pun intended) to think it is. Of course, your hair is your hair, and you should style it however it makes you happy. But before buying that next stack of braiding hair, or investing in another miracle straightener, here are  some myth debunks that I wish I’d known years ago.

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Pinterest, Cheri Pearl Photography

Myth 1: Natural Hair is Less Healthy Than Other Hairstyles (i.e. Your Hair Will Dry Up, Break Off, or Spontaneously Erupt in Flames and You Will Be Miserable Forever and Ever)

I won’t even talk about natural hair vs. relaxers/straightening products/heat styling, because even the biggest natural-phobes know chemicals and frequent heat wreaks havoc on your hair. A more compelling argument you’ll hear though, is that natural styles make it hard for your hair to grow. It’s true that if you leave your hair alone- in long-term fixes like braids, etc.- it will get longer. But natural hair can be the same way. Here’s the trick: keep it moisturized, never towel dry, and never use a comb. It sounds crazy, I know. But I have the pride of Nigeria on my head (the nappiest 4c hair you can imagine), and it’s still tangle-free and growing. That’s an epic journey for future posts, but for now, just know that strong conditioners and your hands are really all you need to detangle. One thing’s certain: if you don’t comb your hair,  it doesn’t break off. Also, with the right products your curls will stay longer and more defined, unlike the frizz that can come with combing. Fact.

Myth 2: Natural Hair is Time-Consuming (i.e. I Take You, Bathroom Mirror, as My New Spouse Until Death Do Us Part) which goes hand-in-hand with Myth 3: You Don’t Have a Lot of Style Options with Natural Hair (i.e. Hats FOREVER!)

I think these were my biggest fears. I was busy woman when I went natural, a working, full time undergrad with late nights and morning classes. But I “made the leap” on Christmas break, posting pictures of my creations to Facebook for feedback (and shameless affirmation), remembering styles that were easy, quick, and most importantly cute. Within two weeks a routine surfaced, and by the time I went back to school I had it down. Below’s a small portion of what I came up with (I’ll be posting tutorials!). Each style is distinct; most of them took 10 minutes, and all of them under 20.

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Kelly Moreira, supermodels.nl

Here’s the key to keeping your style time efficient: don’t try to make your hair look like something it’s not. “Neat” for you looks different than it does for other people. The same goes for “Professional” and “Formal.” Don’t compare yourself even to other curly people- all our patterns are different, and yours is the way it’s meant to be.

Myth 4: You Have to Be “Good With Hair” to Manage Natural Hair (i.e. You Must be a Curl Whisperer) Nope. You just have to know your hair which, granted, takes a little time to do. Trial and error is your friend. Style wet and invest in some basic products, like conditioner, moisturizer, gel and headbands. This can be a fun process- find 2 or 3 quick styles you’re comfortable with everyday, then experiment with more complicated techniques. Even these will seem simple after a while.

Myth 5: You Have to Have a Strong “Ethnic” Identity to Pull Off Natural Hair (i.e. “So Is Your New Hair for Kwanzaa?”) You know what I’m talking about. Sure, kinky fros and bantu knots are fine for your friend/cousin/co-worker, who waxes eloquent on Maya Angelou, wears Kente cloth dresses, or has a “Mother Africa” bumper sticker on her car. But what if you’re slightly more…run-of-the-mill? Or just different? Take me, for example. Yes, my parents are Nigerians. But I was born in Southern California, raised on cornflakes and Jane Austen. I love opera and Masterpiece Theater. I can’t dougie to save a crippled puppy, and I speak like the child of a London ex-patriot and a Los Angeles valley girl. Well, first of all: Your ethnicity means whatever the heck you want it to mean. Anyone who tells you you’re not acting “black,” “white,” or fill-in-the-blank enough obviously doesn’t understand how diversity works. Also, they they should go soak their heads and mind their own business. You should also know that natural hair is extremely versatile. I have an endless supply of flower/jewel clips, ribbons, and even fascinators for as many moods as I have books. I like all styles from Nigerian majestic to Victorian prim. It doesn’t take long to find a style that makes you flutter inside, one that’s completely and irrevocably you.

So remember: More than anything, the leap to natural hair takes commitment. That doesn’t mean time or money. It does mean looking at yourself in the mirror every day and thinking “This is me. This is my hair. And it’s fine.” In fact, it’s beautiful. Will you have a bad hair day every so often? Yes. Literally everyone does, and no one will care as much as you think they will. Need help? Ask for it- from videos, articles, blogs (hint, hint) and of course your friends and relatives (grandmothers existed before straightening irons, and boy do they know their stuff). I’d suggest sticking to it for at least 6 months before giving yourself the option to quit. By then you’ll have established a routine and found products and styles you like- but more importantly you’ll have gotten used to yourself as you truly are, and found, I hope, that you’re drop-dead gorgeous. Here’s to many more years of kinky curly.

Youcandoit

Review: The Chemical Garden Trilogy (2011-2013)

The Books:

The Chemical Garden Trilogy (2011-2013): Wither, Fever, and Sever by Lauren DeStephano

ChemicalGardenTrilogy

My Rating:

RentIt

Review:

How would I live if I knew I’d kick the bucket in a few months? Hopefully reading less young adult novels (but chances are I’d still clean out Barnes and Noble).

The Chemical Garden trilogy plunges us in a North America centuries beyond our own, where a genetic study gone wrong has caused every child to die, on the dot, at twenty or twenty-five. Those born before the study bury generation after generation, either coddling the parade of doomed children or exploiting them. 16-year-old Rhine and her twin brother are raised by geneticists, who die mysteriously in their search for a cure.

Lauren DeStephano shaped this multi-faceted world with genuine life and visceral detail, but the trilogy flows less on the plot, and more on Rhine’s voice. DeStephano clothes universal emotions in new skins. Images blossomed before my eyes and kept me turning pages.

Though the series improves as it progresses, I actually found the debut novel Wither a bit disappointing. Rhine is kidnapped by Gatherers and sold as a third bride to fragile young Linden, who is in turn controlled by Housemaster Vaughn, his sociopathic father. In spite of our awareness that secrets murmur below the surface of Rhine’s luxurious home and prison, Wither reads much like a paperback romance novel, with the strange addition of holographic pianos and child marriages.

DeStephano’s skill shines, however, through her secondary characters. Most notable are thirteen-year-old Cecily, Rhine’s spoiled sister wife; Maddie, the mute and brilliant child of a prostitute in Fever; and Reed, Linden’s charmingly brusque uncle in Sever. Their complexity does not, unfortunately, extend to the central romantic interest Gabriel. His selfless affection for Rhine is constant as a flat-lined heart monitor, and feels about as interesting—though he’s heroically imprisoned or drifting out of comas for the majority of the series, so he doesn’t have a lot of grandstanding ops. Perhaps he’s less two-dimensional in his handsome, druggy dreams.

Regardless, for the plot and lovely narrative I wanted to finish the series. By the end of Wither, however, Rhine hadn’t lodged herself in my heart. She’s an elusive princess when pampered in Linden’s mansion, and a “fallen empress” when thrust into the harsher settings of the second and third books, Fever and Sever. Beautiful and empathetic, Rhine has a mesmerizing effect on her companions that borders on annoying. For as many ways in which Fever struck me as unique, its protagonist is yet another victim of Everyonewantsmybody-osis, a disease currently sweeping through the young adult genre in which every single male character yearns to bed, murder, or gaze forever into the eyes of the non-descript heroine.

To be fair, the series’ central plotline does concern bodies and mortality. The faint of heart will need breaks between Fever’s chapters. Rhine’s plague-ridden world places low regard on human life, and next to none on a woman’s. Readers must either desensitize and disconnect from the parade of murder, sexual coercion, and pre-pubescent pregnancies, or suffer through the pages like Rhine in her drug-induced nightmares, wondering when it will all be over. While DeStephano uses considerable taste and omission in her descriptions, little sense of redemption arises in Fever to temper the horror. This factor made Fever a difficult read—I couldn’t see the point of experiencing—even through a novel—the hopelessness.

Then I realized, perhaps DeStephano’s tragedies sickened me because they struck a familiar chord.

These are not the larger-than-life dilemmas of vampires or fantasy villains. This is simply exploitation, a crime as old as time, present and horrific in our time as in any dystopia. How would our society treat women if it knew they would die at age twenty? I’m guessing it would be a picture chillingly similar to the one DeStephano has painted. Perhaps with her beautifully voiced narration, she has warned us of what our world could become.

The series, at any rate, redeems itself in Sever, DeStephano’s fluid-paced conclusion. Through a stream of plot twists, magnificent character arcs, and satisfying resolutions, the Chemical Garden trilogy ends not with a bang but with a resounding hope. At its close, this reader’s dreams found new wind in their sails, driven by the urgency of these characters for which life is a precious burden and a fleeting gift.