Not all families are created equal, as three new novels released this summer make abundantly clear. Chickens in the Headlights is a humorous look at a young family, which though large in numbers is basically a well-adjusted “normal” family. This story is told through the eyes of an eight-year-old child. The second, The Secret Journal of Brett Colton , explores the relationships within a family who has lost a child and been unable to move on. It is told through the eyes of a teenager. And the third, Remember No More , is told from the view point of an adult who has cut herself off from a family who filled her childhood with abuse and neglect.
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Though the first novel is funny, the second two are serious. All three demonstrate the impact the family relationship has on the individual and the individual’s need to come to terms with his/her family background. All three, in different ways, are remarkable books.
There’s a new kid on the block writing humor. Matthew Buckley can’t really be compared to other LDS humor writers; he definitely has his own brand of comedy. Chickens in the Headlights isn’t geared toward either gender (though it features far more males than females), and it doesn’t appeal to one age group over another. The reader need not even be LDS to find himself chuckling out loud, though a knowledge of a few Mormon peculiarities will enhance the laughter. Anyone who has ever been a kid or a parent will appreciate this Buckley family saga and those of us who have the good fortune to be part of a large family will especially appreciate the Buckley story.
Based on the author’s own upbringing, this book relates the adventures of a boy, Matt Buckley, who is the second child in a family that consists of Mom, Dad, and seven siblings ? all boys ten and under.. Mom and Dad are typical parents who are trying to raise their sons to be responsible, caring, honest, hard-working people. One of their attempts at building character in their offspring is to provide them with a summer project that is intended to benefit the boys individually and the family as a whole. They’ve had their share of gardens that didn’t work out quite as intended, but this summer promises much more. They’re finally getting animals to care for – thirty chickens and two goats.
Bedtime antics, a cross-country motor trip, lost library books, and burping contests pale beside the efforts of young Matt and his brothers to do chores and care for animals, especially when the parents know as little about chickens and goats as the boys do and the whole experience that started out with such glorious expectations becomes an exercise in trial and error ? mostly error.
Buckley’s characters are well-developed, possibly because they are modeled after himself and his real-life brothers and sons. He has nine brothers, one sister, and four sons. He understands the politics of large families, along with the joys and hardships. His characters have the kind of literal honesty and innocence that ring true. He also manages to avoid the stereotyping that often appears in writing about large families. Each boy is a distinct individual. Coming from a large family myself (I have five brothers and two sisters), I particularly enjoyed and related to the boys’ interactions with each other.
It would be easy to assume that Buckley’s book is childish because it is written from the viewpoint of an eight-year-old and it focuses on seven young boys, but Chickens in the Headlights is neither childish nor naive. Rather, it is that rare book that crosses lines to be enjoyed by the whole family. It is the kind of book that can be read aloud at the dinner table or listened to on a long car trip without boring some family members or passing over the heads of others. This book isn’t preachy, though it espouses a number of admirable traits. What it is, is funny. It isn’t the contrived kind of humor we find in jokes, but the innocent sort that happens unexpectedly in real life, the kind of humor we remember and that becomes part of family lore.
Humor is getting better and more humor books are being written than ever before in the LDS market. I thoroughly recommend this one and hope we hear more from Matthew Buckley.
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The Secret Journal of Brett Colton , by Kay Lynn Mangum, is a far departure from the light-hearted prose of Chickens in the Headlights . She may have been a surprise, but Kathy doesn’t consider that a good excuse for the absence of baby pictures and a record of her first words and steps when she arrived in the Colton family sixteen years ago. It appears no one had time for her or showed much interest in her “firsts” during those early years ? or since.
Kathy Colton is one of those children who came along when her siblings were teenagers and nearly grown. It has been difficult for her to feel she is really part of the family. She’s in high school now, but Samantha and Alex are in their thirties with families of their own. The worst part is that every family get-together is a reminder there was once another brother, Brett, who died of leukemia when Kathy was two. Because she was too young to remember him, she doesn’t share the other family members’ warm memories of him. She only knows he was the reason no one had time for her.
Even though Kathy doesn’t remember Brett and her family’s reminiscing about him leaves her feeling unappreciated and left out, she is drawn to his pictures both at home and in the trophy case at her school. Brett was a football hero at school and the center of the universe at home. It seems he could do no wrong. Every family gathering, even her birthday celebration, turns into a trip down memory lane as her parents and siblings rehash their memories of her perfect brother. It’s enough to make Kathy hate the brother she doesn’t remember, but who constantly intrudes into her life.
Football is closely linked to everyone’s memories of Brett, therefore, Kathy avoids the game like the plague. Then the unthinkable happens. She is assigned to tutor a football jock, the popular Jason West. What makes matters worst is that everyone compares Jason to her record-breaking brother. She’s certain the tutoring isn’t going to work out because he’s not only a dumb jock, but also a Mormon. Her life is further complicated by an unusual birthday gift, a letter from her deceased brother, which leads her to the journal he kept during his illness (which were also her baby years). Through the journal, she learns she and her older brother have more in common than she could have ever guessed, including a Mormon friend who interests them in the Gospel.
Though The Secret Journal of Brett Colton is primarily a young adult novel, it is also a book about family. While it deals with a teenage boy and his sister of different generations maturating from their “me” attitudes to an understanding of the importance of family, it also teaches valuable truths about the role each individual plays in his or her family and the love that binds a family together. It also points out that making assumptions, placing blame, and bigotry are not the private domain of the young. The journal concept provides convincing details of the fear and realities of facing death at a young age. It also provides subtle hints that those who have died may still be able to influence those they loved in this life.
Kay Lynn Mangum is to be congratulated for an excellent first novel.
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By far, the darkest book of the three is Remember No More , by Pamela Reid. Kiri Karaitiana needs no one and trusts no one. She has no idea who her father was, and her mother died when she was only five. She lives with her grandfather and an odd assortment of uncles and cousins who frequently molest and abuse her. Her grandfather ignores her need for protection, and her only ally is a one cousin who helps her when he can by taking her fishing or to hidden spots where she is beyond the reach of other family members for short periods of time. At sixteen she runs away and begins the long struggle to gain an education. Her efforts take her away from her native New Zealand for many years, but she eventually returns to begin her career and continue her studies.
On her return to New Zealand, Kiri befriends an old man at a bus stop, who, on learning she is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, volunteers his colleague to pick her up for church. There is something about the girl that reminds the old man of his own part-aborigine wife, Winnie. His friend, Dan, is surprised that Ted even spoke to a stranger since that isn’t his usual style. He also convinces Ted and his wife, who are not members of the Church, to accompany him to pick up Kiri and attend church with them.
When they reach Kiri’s apartment, they learn she is critically ill. They set about caring for her, eventually moving her out of the cold, damp apartment into the house where they are living. Kiri recovers slowly and along the way finds herself attracted to Dan, but is determined their mutual interest has no future and she must earn another degree and spend her life alone. She feels certain neither Dan nor any man like him would want her if he knew about her past. Overcoming feelings of guilt and inferiority play a strong role in Kiri’s growth.
Circumstances bring her in contact with Dan’s family, showing her how the love and interaction among family members should be. Eventually she shares her background with Dan, forcing them both to examine their relationships with each other and with their families. Hard decisions have to be made as Kiri confronts what is left of her family and Dan learns which dreams matter.
Remember No More gives readers a fascinating glimpse of life in New Zealand, while it brings out in realistic terms the difficulties Kiri and Dan face in pursuing a relationship in spite of their differing races and backgrounds. This is not a “quick fix” novel, but one that treats difficult issues truthfully and sensitively, giving the reader a glimpse of the pain and determination involved in overcoming the scars left by a dysfunctional family.
This is not Reid’s first novel. She has written several others, which are enjoyable reads. But in my opinion, in Remember No More , she reaches a new level of quality and craftsmanship.