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The Knight’s Champion

Freak the MightyFreak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick

 

“I never had a brain until Freak came along…”

12-year-old Max is used to having no friends. He’s used to the whispers about his size, about his intelligence. About his father. But when Freak moves into his neighborhood, small and smart as an encyclopedia, the two of them find they are stronger together. For together they are Freak the Mighty.

 

I can’t believe I waited till I was twenty-eight to read this book. I have kind of a thing for big softies and their genius counterparts, like Fezzik and Inigo (The Princess Bride by William Goldman), and Grunthor and Achmed (Rhapsody by Elizabeth Haydon). Their trust and partnerships always make for compelling reading. And Max’s background made him all the more sympathetic. I loved that Freak was never frightened of Max, even when all the adults were nervous. Freak understood him and reached out to him from the moment they met.

As for Freak’s disability, I don’t know much about Moquio Syndrome, but I loved Philbrick’s portrayal of him. We saw Freak through Max’s eyes, and to Max, he was a genius and a hero. Unlike the adults in their lives, we don’t pity Freak because Max doesn’t see anything to pity. Any time someone refers to him as “that poor boy”, Max is there to disabuse them of that notion. If Freak is a brave knight, then Max is his noble champion.

Freak also had an amazing ability to take himself out of his situation into something more exciting. I can totally relate to imagining a future outside of what is possible. It would depress the hell out of me, but I can see how it would give a kid like Freak a way to cope.

And in a way, Max has his own disabilities. The way people judge him based on his looks and family and his performance in school limits him in his day to day life. It’s only Freak who looks beyond the surface and sees Max. And in the end, it’s Freak who changes the way Max sees himself.

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Ingermanson’s Double Vision

Randy IngermansonWhen Dillon Richard helps build a quantum computer that can crack any and all code, he gets way more than the better-privacy-for-everyone that he counted on. Now he’s stuck between those who want to use him and those who want to kill him, and the woman who makes his heart pound and the woman who could give him a future.

 

I really enjoyed this book. When I read the cover copy, I thought this would be a spy novel. Warning: It’s not. It’s more of a cross between Frank Peretti and Michael Crichton. Lucky for Mr. Ingermanson, I love both. The thriller with a Christian/romantic vibe really worked for me, and I’ll admit, I kind of have a thing for nerds (being a huge one myself) and Dillon made a seriously cute nerd. Now, I don’t have Asperger’s, so I can’t really analyze Dillon’s character for accuracy or that gut feeling I get with other books that are closer to my experience, but there were some things that bothered me and some things I thought Ingermanson did well.

Dillon referred to the people around him as “Normals” and to himself as “not-Normal”, recognizing there was something significantly different about him. I don’t know how people with Asperger’s think or feel about themselves vs society, but I do know some people with Autism and they don’t necessarily think in terms of us and them. Accuracy aside, I think this is a dangerous idea for an author to perpetrate. It encourages readers to think of Dillon as “other” which will eventually translate into real life. I felt like that could have been handled a bit better.

I liked watching Dillon try to figure out social cues, fitting them to formulas he can solve. This expression plus these words usually equals this, therefore I should respond thus. His logic and thought process were also well represented in the stripped prose. Dillon’s point of view was clearly different than the others, not just in word choice and backstory, but in the way he viewed the world, and it’s always really interesting to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

There was way too much quantum mechanics for me. I did not sign up for a lecture, and I thought the writing was a bit repetitive in places. Some things were said several times the same way and all I could think was, “Thanks for the recap but I got it the first time.” Also, some of the conversations and character interactions felt forced and unlikely. I’m aware that I’m emotionally reserved when it comes to talking with people, but I’m pretty sure very few others would have been that blunt and candid at such an emotional climax. “Pick me, Dillon.” “No, pick me.” I kept expecting him to wake up from the dream.

With that said, a book is the sum of its parts and this one came out way in the positive on my scale. I’m so sick of love triangles, but I picked it up anyway because Dillon seemed like a great character. I was impressed by the way the women treated him throughout the book. There was some recognition of Dillon’s “weirdness” at the beginning but mostly they treated him like any other character with some specific quirks and pet peeves they can work around. And I’m just glad he picked the right girl in the end. “Roses are red, the multiverse is blue.” Be still my heart.

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The Blurred Line

BreathBreath by Donna Jo Napoli

In a time of superstition, before modern medicine, Salz struggles to breathe. A strange disease leaves him weak and marked for death. Except… he hasn’t died. And when a plague of madness strikes his town, Salz is the only one left unscathed. But is this a blessing or a curse? Because with the reprieve comes suspicion. Is Salz the source of the plague? Or will he be the salvation of them all?

 

A good book makes me feel the whole gamut of emotions: joy, sorrow, anger, frustration, and shock. A great book does all that, but it also keeps me thinking long after I’ve turned the last past. Breath didn’t have the most engaging plotline or amazing characters, but it had some fascinating things to say about health and illness, disability and heroism, faith and hypocrisy.

I know Donna Jo Napoli for her fairytale re-tellings. I really liked Beast and I’ve got Sirena waiting on my to-read shelf. I’m a huge sucker for fairytales, so when I realized Breath was a retelling of The Pied Piper of Hamelin (one of the more chilling fairytales) and might possibly have something to do with the plague (a subject I find morbidly riveting), I grabbed it without a second thought. Then I realized I had a disability topic in my hands.

Salz suffered from Cystic Fibrosis, something that should have killed him long before, but among the medieval remedies his grandmother dosed him with were some potent pieces of wisdom which kept him alive. Someone suffering from Cystic Fibrosis today wouldn’t necessarily do a hand stand every time they start coughing, but the acrobatics helped Salz clear his lungs and breathe easier.

I loved how intertwined the perceptions of health and illness were in this book. Salz is sick. Really sick. Sick enough that everyone’s surprised he’s still alive and Salz himself hesitates to make plans for his future. His illness is met with derogatory reactions not unexpected in this time period. His family thinks he’s useless, his grandmother is the only one who shows any affection toward him, and when it comes down to a choice between Salz’s life or his older brother’s, his family chooses to throw him under the metaphorical bus without a second thought.

But in the end the Cystic Fibrosis protects him from the disease that ravages the rest of the town. It saves his life even as it threatens to kill him. And of course, being “healthy” puts him at risk again when the townspeople accuse him of being the source of the disease through witchcraft.

There was such an interesting give and take between being healthy and being sick. Salz’s weakness is what keeps him from leaving with the children when the piper demands his due, but it is what leaves him healthy enough to go after them. So the invalid becomes the hero. The line between disabled and enabled blurs.

I read this with the disability and illness themes in mind, but already, I know that it deserves a re-read. I want to go back and look at how Napoli handled faith and hypocrisy as well. I caught a glimpse of them out of the corner of my eye as I barreled through and I can’t wait to revisit them.

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