Black Swan Rising, Lisa Brackmann, 2018

…And once those black swans start flying…you don’t know what’s coming home to roost. Lisa Brackmann

Spoiler Alert

For the Political challenge, I chose Black Swan Rising, a tale entrenched not only in the world of politics but behind the scenes of the sensation driven media. The story follows two protagonists into the world of domestic and cyber terrorism.

            Young and ambitious, Casey Cheng bides her time as a tv journalist in the steppingstone market of San Diego. She’s recovering emotionally and physically from injuries sustained at the hands of a gunmen while covering an event. In effort to make sense of it she decides to turn a negative into a positive by researching the deceased gunmen and his motives. Nabbing an interview with the shooter’s mother gives Casey access to his lair. There she finds a graphic novel that inspired him and a growing movement of angry men bent on taking back the country using her shooter’s name as a rallying cry. She becomes obsessed with finding out the truth.

            On the other side of town, recent college grad Sarah Price is a campaign worker for Democrat Matt Cason, a war veteran with a temper.  As the campaign’s social media coordinator, Sarah must balance the publicity needs of Cason with her desire to keep her past hidden. When violence erupts at an event, Sarah is forced into the spotlight, where her secrets come back to haunt her. She’s obsessed with hiding the truth.

            Casey and Sarah’s paths converge intermittently about halfway through the 400+ page book. Yet, they never really join forces. Each woman maintains her own storyline as they follow their respective career paths. It’s like Brackmann created two separate novels with the other character making occasional cameos.

            Though I liked following the two intriguing characters, Brackmann’s attention to both isn’t distributed evenly. At the beginning, we’re introduced to Sarah and she feels like the main character. It’s jarring when Casey takes over about forty pages in. The story bounces back and forth between Sarah and Casey, as well as secondary (they’re too important to be minor) characters without any real rhyme or reason. Sarah’s storyline resolves almost 100 pages before the book’s ending, though she’s still around (and plays a very important part at the book’s climax).

            Characters in the book are either compelling and real or barely existent. Those real ones come complete with histories, vices and personal agendas. Casey feels most fleshed out, but that proves to be problematic because some of her habits—risk-taking for one—become exhausting.  Brackmann does an excellent job portraying the way a Type-A person like Casey would react to being felled by a gunman. The idea that she would morph her healing into a career move seems apropos. Why should someone else benefit from her pain?

Sarah’s troubled past was more interesting to me and I wish more had been done with her. Still, it’s fitting, given the character’s desire to shut that part of her life out. Sarah’s got a survivor’s mentality so it makes sense she wouldn’t dwell on the secret she’s trying to keep hidden. The characters of Matt and Lindsey Cason are a study in the pressure media scrutiny can put on a marriage that’s already cracking.

            My only complaint about the book is the wedged in romantic feelings Casey and Sarah’s characters have for colleagues. It’s as if Brackmann felt obligated to give these young women men to fixate on in sporadic bursts. Casey kinda sorta develops a crush on her cameraman but loses interest so quickly it’s hard to understand why it was mentioned. Sarah kinda sorta has a thing for the charismatic, troubled and married Matt Cason. It’s clear she isn’t interested enough to derail her career or his marriage over it. Then, suddenly, she’s pursuing an available colleague. Honestly, it felt like the author decided to drop those storylines and just forgot to delete all the sentences pertaining to them. It doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyability of the book. It’s just a tad distracting.

Alex, The Life of a Child, Frank Deford, 1983

She was dear and noble, and nothing ever controlled her.

Frank Deford

I expected one of the most difficult categories of the 52 week book challenge to be “The book that makes you cry” and I was right. I read a few books that I thought might have an impact, but while I could appreciate the moroseness of the situations, no tears came.

Deep down, I knew the book I had to choose for this challenge. The one book I could count on to reduce me to ugly crying tears. Even after thirty years, even after multiple readings.

I first came upon the story of Alex Deford at my grandparents’ house. Reader’s Digest ran an abridged excerpt in one of its issues and shortly after a tv movie came out. After sobbing hysterically during the film, I made my mother drive me to Waldenbooks the next day so I could get a full copy of the book. At twelve years old, the story of Alex’s struggle touched me in a way I still can’t explain. Though not a bestseller, many of us who read this book have a devoted, near obsessive love for it and Alex herself.

In October 1971, Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford lived an idyllic life in Connecticut. Married to a former model and father to a healthy son, the birth of daughter Alex completed the American dream. Briefly. Just four months later, Alex was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that causes the sufferer to produce too much mucus in the lungs as well as other ailments. The disease is progressive and fatal. Even today, the life expectancy is 37.5 years (Cystic Fibrosis News Today). Back in the seventies, the age was eighteen. Alex only made it to eight.

Yet, even as her health deteriorated, Alex’s vivacious nature kept her and her family going. Up until the last week of her life she had no intention of going gently into that good night and held out hope that there would be a cure.

Deford wrote the book shortly after Alex’s death as a way for his adopted daughter to get to know her older sister. He chronicles Alex’s life by interviewing those who knew and loved her, revisiting entries from the diary he kept and sharing memories and philosophical reflections. But the book is more than just a biography of Alex. It’s a look into the lives of families affected by terminal illness, something those of us blessed with health don’t have to think about and probably can’t really comprehend. While Alex’s presence no doubt made their lives better, it’s fair to say her disease made their lives more challenging. Simply put, it’s an account of the toll a terminal disease can take on a family.

Because the reader knows how Alex’s story ends, her eventual death looms in the distance, adding weight to all the action that comes before it. Part of what makes the book so devastating is knowing that Alex’s suffering (and there’s a lot of it) will ultimately yield nothing. Deford mentions this himself in a refreshing display of deserved bitterness and righteous anger. He doesn’t shy away from “negative” emotions or hide the truth behind saccharine sentiments like “There’s a reason for everything” or “God must have needed another angel” drivel. He knows his daughter got a dark cloud and he doesn’t pretend there’s a silver lining. While I don’t begrudge people taking a more optimistic approach to grief, sometimes it feels like it belittles the person’s life and suffering when we act like there’s an upside to their death.  

Forty years after her death Alex still impacts those of us who read this book. Her story is inspiring and long-lasting. Cystic fibrosis robbed Alex of years, but it didn’t diminish her spirit.