Another Brooklyn

anotherbrooklynby Jacqueline Woodson
First sentence: “For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: August 9, 2016
Content: There’s some swearing, including a few f-bombs, and a lot of illusions to off-screen sex as well as drug use. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

The death of August’s father, and her return to Brooklyn for the first time in many years, sets off a chain of memories from her childhood. When she, her brother and father left the farm down South, soon after her mother committed suicide. The friendships she had with girls her age, and the different paths their lives eventually took. The way her father and brother turned to Islam and the hope and guidance their religion gave them. It all comes crashing down on her, in a series of reflective snippets, as she tries to make sense of her childhood.

I’m not sure I fully unpacked all that this novel had to offer. In fact, I know I didn’t. It’s deceptively short and it goes quick, and I know I missed things. Not only Big Things (not that there was much of a plot; it really was a series of short, almost poetic vignettes), but the Meaning behind those Things. It’s a harsh place, Brooklyn of the 1970s, a sexist one as well as a dangerous one. And August, through Woodson, tries to unpack what it all Means. And even though I enjoyed the lyrical flow of the book, and related to the women in it, I’m not sure I understood what Woodson was trying to do.

That said, I think it’s an Important book, and one that will be great for book groups to sit and hash over. (I’d love someone to talk to about it.) And, I can’t deny the beauty of the writing; Woodson is supremely talented. I just wish I were a better reader.

The Ask and the Answer

askandanswerby Patrick Ness
First sentence: “‘Your noise reveals you, Todd Hewitt.'”
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Others in the series: The Knife of Never Letting Go
Content: There’s some violence, but nothing gory, and there’s a few mild swear words. It is, however, not for the faint of heart. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Spoilers for the first one. You’ve been warned.

Todd and Viola thought they were going to find relief in Haven when they got there. What they found, though, was that Mayor Prentiss had beat them there, taken over the town in a bloodless coup, and is in power. Scary.

He separates Todd and Viola, taking him under his wing and threatening her life if he doesn’t comply. He sends Viola to live with the women in the healing houses. Where she meets the leader of the resistance, Mistress Coyle, and becomes involved with them. Neither one knows, for a good portion of the book, whether the other is alive. The only thing they do know is that they can’t trust anyone.

It’s a harrowing book: there are abuses towards women and towards the alien Spackle. And I can see what Ness is doing here: how many people do what their awful leaders tell them to do just because it’s the path of least resistance. And whether or not people fighting against a dictator can be consider terrorists. Like the first one, there’s a lot to think about. And even though it’s good, I found it hard to get through. Mayor Prentiss is a despicable character (maybe not as bad as Leck, but close) who does awful things and it made this book difficult to read, emotionally.

Which means, I think, that Ness did his job. And I’m wondering where the last book will go.

And Then There Were None

andthentherewerenoneby Agatha Christie
First sentence: “In the corner of a first-class smoking carriage, Mr. Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at a cigar and ran an interested eye through the political news in the Times.”
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Content: Well, there are murders, but all are off-screen, and none are grisly. There’s no swearing. It’s in the mystery section of the bookstore.

This is one book I remember reading as a kid. I was probably 12 or 13, and I discovered Agatha Christie, and thought that she was just brilliant. Such a great writer! Such a clever mystery!

I haven’t revisited it in years, and with the “classic mystery” square on my book bingo I thought I’d take the time to revisit it.

And. Well.

The writing’s okay. Christie does have a knack for moving the plot along (thank you!), with lots of dialogue and without a lot of exposition (which really comes at the end). But it’s not brilliant writing. And the characters are all kind of stereotypical (the nervous younger woman, the prudish old woman, the handsome young man, the nervous doctor, the bullish judge). There’s no time to connect with anyone (perhaps that’s the point?) so you don’t really feel any shock at their deaths.

But the thing that bugged me was that I couldn’t figure it out. She made a completely unsolvable mystery (perhaps the point, again), and then hands you the solution at the end: Aha! Here it is! You missed it! I felt cheated that I couldn’t figure out WHO was behind this. There were really no clues. And I found that irritating. (I like to think that if I were a smarter reader, I’d catch all the clues, and maybe I just missed them, but I really don’t think so in this case.)

So, while I liked it well enough, it didn’t live up to the hype that I had built up in my own mind over the years. Which is too bad.

The Magicians

magiciansby Lev Grossman
First sentence: “Quentin did a magic trick.”
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Content: There’s a bunch of f-bombs, some references to drugs and sex (off screen). It’s in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

I’ve been told for years that I would like The Magicians. It’s been billed as Harry Potter for adults, and I’ve been curious about it. So, I finally got the time/nerve/inclination to pick it up, just to see what all the fuss is about.

And it’s everything I hate about adult fiction: pretentious kids, a complete lack of plot, inadequate world building, covered in “good” writing.

Ugh.

I admit: I bailed less than halfway through. I just didn’t care enough to  keep going. It was, quite frankly, Boring.

I’ll stick to Harry Potter, thanks.

And I Darken

andidarkenby Kiersten White
First sentence: “Vlad Dracul’s heavy brown descended like a storm when the doctor informed him that his wife had given birth to a girl.”
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Content: There’s a lot of violence, an almost-rape, and some round-about talk of sex. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, but I would give it to a 7th or 8th grader who was interested in historical fiction.

Historical fiction, set in the 15th century, isn’t always something that jumps off the shelf at me. But the cover of this one was SO pretty… And, I admit: I was expecting a fantasy. What I got was a sweeping history of the Ottoman empire, of two siblings — children of the Dracul line — and the paths they forged for themselves against odds.

What I got was a fascinating love triangle (brother and sister in love with the same man), one that was built on friendship and trust and where none of them could be entirely happy. It was the story of a girl who refused to be coddled and took power for herself — Lada is nothing if not fierce — in unique and interesting ways. It’s a story of forced immigration and learning to be at home in a new place. (Or not.) It’s fascinating.

But it was also long; the book begins with Lada’s birth and goes for twenty years. It’s sprawling, complex, and not a little meandering. There were a ton of characters to keep a handle on, most of which I didn’t care about. I didn’t care about the campaigns and there wasn’t enough of the politics I found fascinating. Perhaps I’ll read the second (yeah, this is a first in a series), but I don’t know.

There was much to like about this book. I’m just not sure if it was enough.

The Witches

witchesby Roald Dahl
First sentence: “In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks.”
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Content: It’s not as scary as I thought it would be, and surprisingly simple for the size. Heads up, though: grandma smokes a cigar. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

So, I remember reading this one at some point, and I had a violently negative reaction to it. I HATED it. So, I was a bit wary going in this time. But, since I picked this for the Roald Dahl book club, I needed a re-read going in.

And it’s…. weird. I was asked if it was “good”, and I said “It’s weird.” “Does that mean it’s bad? ” Nope. Just weird.

The basic plot? There are witches out there, and they look like us. Except they always wear gloves, and a wig (to cover their bald heads) and the have no toes. They hate children and make them disappear. They are, at all costs, to be avoided. So when our narrator (whose childhood sounds suspiciously like Dahl’s), accidentally ends up in a ballroom full of witches, he’s (understandably) terrified. Especially after he hears their master plan for the children of England: make a time-release mouse potion, put it in candy, and voila! No more children. They’ll all be mice.

Except our narrator doesn’t make it out in one piece: he’s caught and turned into a mouse. But, he can talk and he can still think like himself so he goes and convinces his grandma that he’s still her grandson. And informs her of the Grand Plan. Which they, unbelievably, thwart. But our narrator remains a mouse, which is just fine with him because then he won’t outlive his grandma.

Weird.

There are the usual Dahl themes: adults hating kids, and good kids being bullied (by the witches). But it really feels different from the other ones I’ve read. Matilda is darker, and Charlie is more didactic. I’m not quite sure what The Witches is other than… weird.  Was it supposed to scare kids? Was it supposed to just be amusing? (It wasn’t.)

This one’s going to be an interesting discussion at book group.

Towers Falling

towersfallingby Jewell Parker Rhodes
First sentence: “Pop groans.”
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Release date: July 12. 2016
Content: It’s simple enough that the younger set can understand it but complex enough that it won’t bore the older kids. It’ll be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Deja is starting over at a new school, but not by choice. Her family was evicted from their home in Brooklyn, and they’ve moved into a homeless shelter closer to Manhattan. It’s not a happy situation; her father suffers from headaches and can’t hold down a job, and her mother — an immigrant from Jamaica — can only work so many hours.

So, when Deja’s new school starts studying the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, Deja wonders what on earth it has to do with her. But, as the weeks and months go on — and she learns more about the attacks that happened before she was born — she and her friends Ben and Sabeen learn that no one is unaffected by history.

Rhodes is doing a couple of things here: first, she’s telling the story of the towers falling for kids who may not know anything about it. Sure, it’s not super distant history, but there are still kids who aren’t really familiar with it. And I’m not sure how much it’s being taught in schools (C got it a lot, A got a lesson or two in 5th grade, and I’m not sure anyone at school has brought it up for K) anymore. So, there definitely is a need for a reminder. But, Rhodes has gone bigger than just “hey kids, this happened” history. She’s encompassing issues of kids being homeless, of religious tolerance (Sabeen is Muslim, and she and her family face discrimination because of that), of diversity. She strikes a nice balance in the book between teaching the kids and preaching to them, and  manages to be diverse and moral-centric without being didactic and moralistic.

It’s definitely a book worth checking out.