Columbine by Dave Cullen

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Genres: True Crime, Non-fiction
Publisher: Twelve
Publication Date: March 3rd 2010

3 OUT OF 5 STARS

“The final portrait is often furthest from the truth.”

Considered the definitive book on the tragedy that shocked America. The script other tragedies hoped to follow. Cullen paints a vivid portrait of the events of April 20th, 1999 and the months after. How the even was handled by the law and the press. How the victims grieved and recovered. Most importantly Cullen tries to destroy the various myths and really look at the biggest question: Why?

The most important thing Cullen does is try to set the record straight. Even nearly twenty years after the tragedy many people still believe the myths of the Trenchcoat Mafia or Goth Culture. People paint the killers as tragic victims, or mastermind killers. Neither of which are entirely true. They also tend to lump them together when the killers were vastly different people with incredibly different potential motives.Unfortunately Cullen ties his bows a little too neat on the killers.

The focus on the victims was also a breath of fresh air. Hearing about their lives, their grief, or their recovery is an incredibly important part of the narrative. The focus is all too often entirely on the killers because people are morbidly fascinated, but Cullen depicts the entire story as accurately as he can while casting a wide net.

So why not give such an important book a perfect score? Aside from the simplistic view of Harris and Klebold I do have a few other nitpicks here and there. There are two huge ones: pictures and the structure. Cullen does explain why he doesn’t want to include pictures throughout the book, but I didn’t feel the reasoning was strong enough. A true crime book is always improved by the inclusion of images. It would have been far easier than describing the appearances of all the people involved. Cullen’s descriptions are, while accurate, a little romanticized. Most of them read like a description of a charming male lead instead of a killer or a 14 year old victim.

The structure is understandable, the story was never difficult to follow – but it could have been done better. It jumps all over the timeline from before the incident to victim recovery never entirely finishing a thread before jumping around again. This might be more personal but I would have preferred a story structured around time than general concepts jumping from story to story.

Cullen’s book is considered the most in depth look at Columbine, and I think that this is true when focusing on the victims. However, though he dispels some myths his painting of the killers is simplistic. He doesn’t present the journal entries or testimonies that disagree with his conclusion. He presents the school as angelic, with Harris and Klebold as the only ssues, which cannot be true.

The is an excellent portrait of the victims and the legal side of things, but with the wealth of knowledge available about the shooters his conclusions are disappointing. There is obvious misinformation that he uses to support his conclusions that differs from some journal entries and eyewitness testimony.

However, as far as everything outside the portrait of the killers Cullen has been remarkably in depth. He exposes the law and showcases as many victim’s stories as he can. In those aspects it is excellent.

For Fans Of: A Mother’s Reckoning

The Great Beanie Baby Bubble by Zac Bissonnette

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Genres: Non-fiction, Economics
Publisher: Portfolio
Publication Date: March 3rd 2015

4 OUT OF 5 STARS

“You can make a lot of money with a good cat.” -Ty Warner”

Beanie Babies took the world by storm briefly in the late 90s. Everyone over a certain age remembers stories about people making enough money to buy cars and houses by selling rare stuffed toys. Bissonnette chronicles the rise and fall of the craze, examines the life of the man behind it and interviews the consumers who were swooped up in it.

The book is both fascinating and sad. The Beanie Baby craze is still a bit of a mystery today but there’s no question that Ty produced quality and affordable toys – and still does. The story of the founder’s life in unfortunately rather tragic. Bissonnette covers two of his relationships – both which ended poorly. His neglected childhood, bad relations with everyone around him and his insane passion for his product. Ty Warner is successful, even after the bubble popped, but if this book is to be believed he is far from happy.

The books flow is…a little strange. It tries to maintain chronological sense but jumps around a little too much. The beginning is slow and the book could do with a little more focus on the Beanie Baby side of things as opposed to Ty Warner’s personal life. It is fascinating but it seems to take up a bit too much of the novel. The photos were also all in the back of the book rather than placed where relevant and there were too few for such a visual toy. There is also a lot of overlap and repetition.

Despite this, it is an easy read for economic beginners and extremely informative. Bissonnette explains every term and idea he brings up very well. Someone with no prior knowledge of plush or economics will have no trouble understanding and following the story.

The book could have done with some bits being cut and a more sensible organization – but all and all it’s an excellent coverage of the few strange years where Beanie Babies were a phenomenon.

For Fans Of:  Mouse Tales

The Dead Inside by Cyndy Etler

Genres: Memoir, Non-fiction
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication Date: April 4th 2017

3 OUT OF 5 STARS

Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was received through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cyndy Etler isn’t a model child, but she’s certainly not a druggie or a slut or anyone who should have ended up at Straight Inc. To the outside world Straight Inc. appeared as a drug rehabilitation centre for teens, but inside it was frighteningly more cult-like. In her cutting and honest memoir Etler shows us inside Straight Inc. and how it affected those unlucky enough to be inside.

Etler shares her story with shocking honesty and all the dirty details. What we end up with is a book that is difficult to read when you remember that it’s all true. It is difficult to believe that anyone lived the way that these teens were forced to during their time at Straight Inc.

As always, it is difficult to review a memoir of someone’s life as the plot and characters are all drawn from reality. Nevertheless, The Dead Inside proves to be a chilling and eye-opening tale of a child from a damaged family being forced into the worst circumstances and brainwashed. The slow descent into believing that Straight Inc. is a positive experience is captured expertly by Etler. It’s heartwrenching to watch her fighting spirit die and to see her slowly start to believe that she is the one who has done something wrong.

I do feel that the story was cut a little short. The sequel will cover Etler’s reintegration into society but it might have been nice to hear a bit more about that in this novel as we already know that Etler’s story ends with her thriving above and beyond any expectations. I also believe that this memoir would have benefit from a little more of Etler’s adult voice interjecting. It is fascinating and important to hear teenage Etler’s voice but the memoir seems to lack a lot of the women that Etler is now and I would have liked very much to hear more of her opinion.

The Dead Inside is not the most exciting or well-rounded novel to deal with this topic because it’s a true tale. But it is precisely because this is a real story that it is one of the most important. Anyone looking to work with teens, particularly troubled teens, should read this book. Etler’s insight into the psyche of a teen who wants to be good is absolutely invaluable.

For Fans Of: Tricks

Teenage Suicide Notes by Terry Williams

Genres: Non-Fiction, Mental Health
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Publication Date: February 14th 2017

2 OUT OF 5 STARS

Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was received through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

A collection of writings and confessions by suicidal teenagers. Williams evaluates these teens and tries to discover what might lead them to suicidal thoughts and self-harm. Williams examines their sexualities, family life, ethnicities, music tastes, and social situations to try and come to a conclusion that connects them all.

This book is brand new and it already feels dated. Most of the cases Williams looks at took place in the 90s and it is painfully obvious. This is no longer the culture we live in. Obviously teenagers still commit suicide and share some of the same feelings but Williams is looking at suicide through the lens of teen culture in the 90s, a culture that no longer exists.

Ignoring the fact that the book feels old, Williams has written it in an odd way. His writing is unorganized, particularly towards the end of the book. Someone using this book academically would have trouble finding the information they’re looking for. As well it leads to Williams repeating himself far too often. The number of times “I’m a good listener” was written in different ways was ridiculous.

His writing is also strangely poetic at times when he describes the appearance of the teens or their homes and it just seems out of place. This isn’t a fictional novel, it didn’t need that sort of flourish.

Out of the cases studied only two led to actual suicides. This means most of Williams’s study is skewed towards teens who overcame whatever issues they had and did not actually kill themselves. This makes it a less useful study on suicide as a whole because only two cases involve actual successful suicides. It does make the book far less depressing than it could have been but the title is rather misleading.

The best part of the book were the children’s writings, particularly the middle section where letters were scanned in. The book would have been far more powerful if it has more of the teenagers’ writings and less of Williams’s examinations of them. He falls into repetitive loops rehashing the same ideas about parenting and goth culture over and over again and it overshadows the poignant and personal writings from the teens.

This book is interesting if only for the real teen writings, but it presents an entirely different (and outdated) world from what today’s teens face.

For Fans of: School Shooters by Peter Langman

School Shooters: Understanding High School, College and Adult Perpetrators​ by Peter Langman

Genres:  Non-fiction, True Crime, Psychology
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Publication Date: January 15th 2015

3 OUT OF 5 STARS

Langman examines 48 different perpetrators and analyzes their mental state as well as the events and actions leading up to their attack. While comparing and contrasting different attackers Langman also offers insight on how such attacks could be prevented.

Langman covers a large number of shooters in order to have a large and diverse sample to work with. It does feel as though this forces him to avoid giving any case too much depth. There are cases that have much less information released but are given the same number of pages as attacks with many more documents released to the public.

Langman’s description of events, environment and social situations are thorough. However, his descriptions of the actual attacks are often very brief, in fact, sometimes the attack itself is barely touched upon. It feels strange to describe home lives of the attackers as in depth as possible but then give a single sentence to their actions during their actual rampage – it seems like a person’s actions during an attack should be crucial when determining their mental state.

Langman offers a diagnosis after profiling every shooter labelling them as psychotic, psychopathic or traumatized. It feels rather repetitive after the first three or four cases as during profiling he has often already stated what signs and symptoms would lead him to such a diagnosis.

Langman’s book is no doubt invaluable for anyone looking to write a paper on the subject of school shooters or to study cases. Everything written is well cited, there are several graphs and tables compiled to organize data such as the average number of victims in correlation to perpetrator age. The notes take up an impressive 60 pages so it would be easy to find the original source of any minor fact included in this book.

For those looking for a pleasurable true-crime-esque read though this definitely falls short. It’s very clinical in tone and far more suited to be used as source material for an academic than a book for a curious reader just wanting to know more about certain crimes.

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Read this if you’re a fan of: A Mother’s Reckoning

A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold

Genres: Non-Fiction, Biography, True Crime
Publisher: Crown
Publication Date: February 15th 2016

5 OUT OF 5 STARS

“To the rest of the world, Dylan was a monster; but I had lost my child.”

After sixteen years Sue Klebold; mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold, speaks out about her experience. Klebold writes of her grief, her struggles, and most importantly her confusion. How could the little boy she knew become a man she knew so little about? How could her child take innocent lives? Klebold writes of the immense guilt she has shouldered and how anyone could be in her place. That while there were signs, most parents wouldn’t have noticed and how important it is to educate people on mental health issues to prevent tragedies in the future.

This is an extremely difficult book to read, but it is something that should be read. It is the perfect example of hindsight being 20/20. Sue Klebold dredges up her painful past to examine all the things she could have done better but was not able to because of how little she knew about the signs. Signs that most parents (despite what they say) would not notice. Klebold writes about how important it is to be vigilant for these small changes. She chronicles her past while voraciously searching for a how and a why.

It’s easy to look at the Columbine shooters as monster; what they did is certainly monstrous. It’s much harder to look at them as people. Sue Klebold manages to depict her son as she remembers him, while being careful not to excuse his crime. She acknowledges the terrible thing he did and how, even if she did the best she knew how, she feels guilt for all the lives her son took. She writes her journey from her initial denial to her grief and guilt and eventual acceptance as she finds ways to prevent future tragedies.

While at times it feels a bit repetitive with Klebold repeating that she didn’t know, she’s obviously trying to drive a point home. Children, and indeed people in general, are unknowable. If someone wants to hide something from you they will. Without knowing the small signals that hinted at Dylan’s mental decline she couldn’t realize that he was in desperate need of help. It perhaps didn’t need the 300-page length, but it contains such vital messages and poignant pain that it can be forgiven.

This is a book that clearly took an extreme amount of courage to write. It is not without issues of course. Sue Klebold clearly wants to push most of the blame on Eric Harris, and while she acknowledges what her son did she seems to have some difficulty writing about the crime in anything but clinical terms. However, it is to be expected. Despite Dylan’s terrible crime, Sue Klebold is still his mother. She acknowledges what he did, but, and I believe this is not a conscious choice, she sympathizes with him heavily. She doesn’t excuse his crimes but she cannot see her son as a monster, and this perhaps makes it a less enjoyable read for some people. It’s hard to know that he is still loved after taking so many lives.

Sue touches on several important topics and writes this book in part to show the world her son and in part to crusade for mental health. It is by no means a book anyone will find an easy read, whether it causes you grief on your own part or anger, but it’s important. It’s important that we understand how something like this could have happened in a “normal” family so that we can better prevent this in the future.

A Mother’s Reckoning will leave you emotionally drained, but also with better insight to not only the Columbine massacre but parenting in general. Enlightening.

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Read this if you’re a fan of:  Columbine by Dave Cullen

The Secret Loves of Geek Girls by Hope Nicholson

Genres: Anthology, Non-fiction, Comics
Publisher: Bedside Press December 2015
Publication Date: December 2015

4 OUT OF 5 STARS

“Sansa Stark loves lemon cake, and so does the girl I love.” 

A non-fiction anthology about geek girls and the girls and boys they love. Comics, short stories and prose all blend together in a fantastically diverse collection following fandom-driven women through stories of romance, sex and lost love.

The diversity in this book is astounding. Women of different races, backgrounds, sexualities, it’s very easy to find a story to relate with regardless of what your identity is like.Fandom is used to explore love, issues of race and gender, used to cope or to grow as a person.

The various tones and writing styles mean that there is something enjoyable for everyone. The standouts for me were “Minas Tirith” by Maguerite Bennett, “Cherry” by Cherelle Higgins and “Regards to the Goblin King” by Megan Kearney. I could list quite a few more that captured my heart, but I’ll leave it at my top three. There were stories that I found less engaging. Comics that I found too short or lacking any real depth, but judge as a whole this anthology is fantastic.

So many of the stories make it easy to forget the novels non-fiction status. They are written beautifully and evoke just as many feelings as fiction stories do. It’s unique, honest and a wonderful look into the world of women involved with fandom. A wonderful read for ANYONE who considers themselves a geek and loves stories.

Read this if you’re a fan of: Geektastic

Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton

Genres:  Non-fiction, Photography
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication Date: October 13th 2015

5 OUT OF 5 STARS

“The great thing about New York is that if you sit in one place long enough, the whole world comes to you.”

Based on the famous blog of the same name, Humans of New York: Stories is a collection of photography and quotes from random strangers met on the streets of New York.

Sonder: n. The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. (x)

This book is beautiful. The photographs are stunning, colourful and haunting. The stories even more so. Small snippets of strangers lives that in a few sentences make them feel more complex than many fictional characters feel in hundreds of pages.

Instead of tossing the book together haphazardly (as blogs sometimes do) there is a fantastic sense of flow. Similar stories flow into others and some of the most beautiful juxtaposition I’ve ever seen.  Believers next to non-believers. People full of happiness and hope next to people who have feel entirely lost. New love next to old love next to love that has faded away.

The stories show similarities between people you never would have imagined. Single sentences can break your heart or make you smile. It can be guaranteed that at least once you will see some small part of yourself in a story in this book. It seems impossible that a sentence or a paragraph can tell you so much about someone, but they can.

A positively magnificent read that will make you feel a vast array of emotions, and most of all remind you that as a human you are never entirely alone.

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Read this if you’re a fan of:  My Secret: A PostSecret Book

Adulthood is a Myth by Sarah Anderson

Genres: Comics, Humour, Non-Fiction
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing
Publication Date: March 8th 2015

3 OUT OF 5 STARS

Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was received from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

A collection of comics about adulthood. Relationships, responsibilities, social situations, anxiety and general awkwardness.

Drawn in a simple style each paneled comic explores a different situation or facet of adult life. It’s refreshing in it’s fearless honesty. Periods, leg hair, over-eating are all depicted exactly as they should be. With all the expectations of growing up it’s wonderful to see a depiction of adulthood that feels more like my experience. A book for the introverts and awkward turtles of society.

It does run a little short. The comics are fairly simple and it’s not hard to get through the book in a half hour without missing anything important. It feels very much like clicking through a young webcomic; it leaves you wanting more but it also leaves you feeling like there wasn’t quite enough. This problem could have been mitigated with some sort of introduction or commentary by the author to make the book feel more substantial.

The comics have been published online and have been very popular. If you have enjoyed any of Anderson’s comics you will love everything in this book. The tone and humour is consistent throughout.

Cute and clever comics that are above all relatable.

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Read this if you’re a fan of: Hyperbole and a Half

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (almost) by Felicia Day

Genres: Non-Fiction, Autobiography, Humour
Publisher: Touchstone
Publication Date: August 11th 2015

4 OUT OF 5 STARS

“It’s hard being weird. No—it’s hard living in a culture that makes it hard.”

Day writes about growing up weird, about perfectionism, depression, anxiety and feminism. About not being able to find a place in the world and eventually creating one for herself. From several fun stories from childhood to chronicling her professional life, Day shares a huge part of herself in this book.

A good read for anyone who loves Day, the internet or wants to get themselves booted into starting something creatively. The chronicling of Day’s career is really inspiring, but also emphasizes how important it is to care for yourself, as much as your work.

It opens very light, funny and incredibly relatable to anyone who feels like a geek. It is a genuinely hilarious book, but Day doesn’t gloss over her life as wonderful. In fact from the very first pages it’s easy to get a sense of how anxious she is, and how hard she’s worked to get where she is today. She portrays her anxiety, depression and addiction in several painfully honest chapters. Addiction to online games is more common than most people realize, and it’s often written off as a cute quirk and not something that can compromise your entire life by soaking up entire months of your life.

Of course, a large portion of the novel is dedicated to the internet, the place Day found the beginnings of her fame. It portrays the internet as the two faced beast it truly is. From all the joy it can bring through connecting people who share the same passions and hearts, to connecting people who really shouldn’t have been connected at all. She writes about her first online friends, how the internet helped her create, and find happiness. She also writes about the horrifying hate messages she gets regularly, #GamerGate, doxxing and people actually showing up to her home uninvited. In the end the second half of the novel feels emotionally heavy (appropriately so), but Day makes a point to end on a positive note.

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Read this if you’re a fan of: Geektastic