Audio Book (sort of): James and the Giant Peach

by Roald Dahl
Read by Taika Waititi and friends
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Content: It’s silly, but much like most of Roald Dahl books, mostly harmless.

I don’t know how I stumbled upon Taika Waititi (and friends) reading James and the Giant Peach, but it has been something that has utterly delighted me these past few weeks. It’s a silly story, one I’ve read maybe once (there’s a bit about the wicked aunts killing spiders I think about every time I deep clean, though), one I have usually dismissed as “lesser” Dahl.

But in Waititi’s hands, it was magical. He’s a gifted storyteller, and the people he’s assembled to help him are wonderful as well. Some are more memorable than others: Meryl Streep and Benedict Cumbertbatch as the aunts in Episode 2 were hilarious, Cate Blanchett as the Centipede in Episode 3 was absolutely perfect, and YoYo Ma as the grasshopper was simultaneously incredibly earnest and utterly endearing. I listened to three episodes every Friday, which was about an hour, and I was always charmed.

It’s still a silly story, with an utterly pedantic ending, but Waititi made it wonderful.

Mooncakes

by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker
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Content: There is some violence and kissing and the characters are out of high school. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Nova Huang is a teenage witch. She works in her grandmothers’ bookstore by day, and is apprenticed to them, mostly because she didn’t want to leave after her parents’ deaths. Tam is a werewolf who moved away years ago. They’re back in town, though, chasing a demon that feeds off of wolf energy. As Tam and Nova rekindle their childhood friendship (which leads to romance!), Tam needs to figure out how to stop the demon. Thankfully, Nova and her grandmothers are willing to help.

This graphic novel is a very cute and charming story. It’s less about the paranormal and witches — that’s just really a backdrop — and more about friendship and trust and creating your own family. Tam identifies using they/them pronouns, and from what I can tell from the story, their mother and stepdad aren’t that thrilled or accepting of Tam, though it may be more about the werewolf than the gender neutral pronouns. Nova, on the other hand, has loving grandparents but is hanging around because…. she misses her parents? Who show up as ghosts on major holidays? I’m not entirely sure.

I liked this one, though I felt it was a bit disjointed. I never really got enough development for Nova and Tam’s relationship, and the twist with the demon kind of came out of nowhere. A good graphic novel, but not a great one.

The Afterlife of Holly Chase

by Cynthia Hand
First sentence: “The first thing you should probably know is that Yvonne Worthington Chase was dead.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing. It would be in the Christmas section if we carried it, but I’d also shelve it in the YA section (grades 6-8).

Holly Chase is dead. She was the recipient of “Project Scrooge” — which is based on A Christmas Carol, going around and finding callous individuals who need redemption — and failed. Miserably. She didn’t believe it was real, she didn’t believe she would die (granted: she wasn’t quite 17), and she ignored all the warnings. And ended up dead.

Now she works for Project Scrooge as The Ghost of Christmas Past. For the past five years, she’s stayed 17, and gone into peoples’ memories, searching for moments of good that could change them. But this year is different. The target is Ethan Worthington III who has a lot of similarities to Holly (and is super attractive too!): they both can pinpoint their increasing materialism and callousness to the point when they lost a parent.

I’m going to leave the rest of the story for you to find out. It was incredibly enjoyable; I liked how Hand echoed the Dickens book without coping it outright. It’s not a retelling of A Christmas Carol, but more a riff on it. Which makes all the difference. I enjoyed Holly as a character, even when she was being a brat, and Hand genuinely surprised me with the direction the story took.

An excellent addition to the world of Christmas books. Maybe not an instant classic, but very, very good.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life

by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
First sentence: “Dark clouds were gathering in the sky, and there was a hint of rain in the morning air.”
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Content: There is some drinking and swearing, including mulitple f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Sal is starting his senior year of high school, and he feels like his life isn’t making sense. He’s mom died when she was three, he never knew his biological father, and although he loves his adoptive father and his Mexican family, he still wonders about the family he never knew. His best friend, Samantha has a crap relationship with her mom, and his other friend, Fito’s, mom has drug problems. Sal’s life is pretty tame comparatively, but still. He’s trying to figure himself out.

Actually, the plot of this one is kind of incidental to the book. It’s mostly about relationships: between Sal and his father, Sal and his grandmother, and Sal and Sam. It’s about the dynamics between them all and what it means to be a part of a family. There is discussion of death and making life worthwhile, as Sal (and Sam and Fito) try to figure out how they fit into the world. Even though it wasn’t heavy on plot, it was beautifully written. Sáenz has a gift for language and I enjoy the way he wrote the characters. Sal’s dad, Vincente, is one of the best fathers I’ve read in a very long time. It was delightful spending time with these characters that I came to care about. (Yes, I cried when Mima died.)

Perhaps not the most exciting book I’ve read recently, but I did enjoy it.

The Remarkable Inventions of Walter Mortinson

by Quinn Sosna-Spear
First sentence: “‘Walter’ is no kind of name for a boy.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s death, including one Really Tragic One, as well as some kissing. It was in the middle grades (3-5) section, but I decided that that age group doesn’t want to read about kissing so I moved it to the YA (grades 6-8) section.

I picked this one up after the first line was chosen as the best of the week a couple weeks back. I was intrigued (I love the cover!). It’s the story of an imaginative boy with an overbearing mother and a dead father in a dreary town and his search for Something More. Walter’s dead father was an inventor (his mother is a mortician) and he desperately wants to follow in his footsteps, so when he gets an invitation to join a famous inventor on his island, he takes his mother’s hearse (a 13 year old knows how to drive?!) and runs away with the girl next door.

It’s less about Walter and Cordelia’s adventure though, and more about forgiveness and acceptance between Walter and his mother. See, Walter and Cordelia retrace the path that his parents took when leaving the island and coming to their boring, dreary town, and in doing so Walter Learns Things about his parents, particularly his father, which he never knew before.

It wasn’t a bad book; I did finish it, though by the end I was skimming (it may have been me). In the end, though, it seems to me the kind of kids books that adults would like rather than kids. I’m not sure many kids are wanting to explore their relationships with their overbearing mothers (on the other hand, there are overbearing mothers who need to read this) and not many kids are interested in heteronormative relationships either. There just wasn’t enough adventure and too much moody musing. Maybe they wanted to be all Dahl-esque, but it just kind of fell flat for me. Which is just too bad, since the premise is pretty great.

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe

by Carlos Hernandez
First sentence: “There’s all sorts of bad advice out there about how to deal with bullies.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s long and sometimes meandering, which might discourage reluctant readers. There are also hints of romance (but none actual) which might turn off squeamish kids. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Sal Vidón has just moved to Miami from Connecticut, and is starting his first week at a really cool performing arts and technology school. The problem? It’s the third day of school, and it’s the third time he’s landed in the principal’s office. The first two were reasonable: to meet the principal on his first day, and the second because he was eating Skittles after PE and the gym teacher was unaware that Sal is diabetic. But this time? It’s because he played a prank — put a raw, whole chicken — into the locker of a kid who was bullying him. Sure, as a prank goes it’s mostly harmless. The real catch? Sal pulled that chicken out of a different universe.

And he was being watched: by Gabi Reál, student council president extraordinaire, and puzzle figure-outer. And once she turns her sights on Sal, his life is never going to be the same.

This is one part science fiction book: with multiverses, and calamity physics (is that a real thing?) and warping the space-time continuum, with self-driving cars (I want one, please) and really advanced AI. And one part Cuban family drama: Sal’s mother died six years ago, and he’s been pulling other versions of his Mami out of other universes ever since. There’s also Gabi’s drama with an infant baby brother fighting for his life, and the bully with a bigger backstory. There’s a lot going on in this book, but it all works, and works well together. Hernandez has given us a funny, clever Cuban speculative fiction book, that kept me turning pages and wondering where he was going to go next. There are cool teachers and Gabi’s gaggle of dads (too hard to explain), and it’s all just enormous amounts of fun.

Beneath the Citadel

by Destiny Soria
First sentence: “Four people were supposed to die at sunrise.”
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Content: There’s multiple instances of one swear word, and some violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Things I really liked about this book:

  1. The time frame was super condensed: most of the action took place (shock) beneath the citadel, where the council of Eldra has been hiding, listening to prophecies, and determining the Fate of the citizens of their country.  Likewise, the entire book took place over four days. 
  2. Even though there was shifting perspectives (I really am kind of over that) between the five characters, Soria kept the action propelling forward, and I never found myself losing interest in the story. 
  3. Which is to say: Soria really knows how to write. No, the sentences weren’t lyrical and lovely all the time, but the characters and dialogue popped, and she kept me guessing throughout the whole book. And she doesn’t hold back any punches. 
  4. I really liked the world Soria built, and the conflict between prophecy and free will. It was a nice tension, and the fact that who the “bad guy” was kept shifting was pretty impressive as well. 

In short? I really enjoyed this one. 

Louisiana’s Way Home

by Kate DiCamillo
First sentence: “I am going to write it all down, so that what happened to me will be known, so that if someone were to stand at their window at night and look up at the stars and think, My goodness, whatever happened to Louisiana Elefante? Where did she go? they will have an answer.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s a follow-up to Raymie Nightingale, and it deals with some tough subjects. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

We first met the inimitable Louisiana Elefante in Raymie Nightengale; she was one of the Rancheros who was basically defined by her slightly off-kilter granny, her dead circus performing parents, and her pluck and spirit. Now, two years later, we’re back with Louisiana and her granny, as they take off from Florida in the middle of the night, uprooting Louisiana from her friends and a place she’s grown to love.

When Granny’s tooth begins to ache, it derails their running away, and they land in a small Georgia town. All of Granny’s teeth get pulled, and they take up shop in a motel, while she recovers. Louisiana is left not only to her own devices, but eventually, just left, as Granny takes off to take care of the curse that is hanging over her head.

It’s Louisiana’s voice and spirit that comes through most in this book. It’s written in the first person — DiCamilo’s first since Winn Dixie — and Louisiana comes out loud and clear. She’s angry and insecure and yet hopeful at the same time. She’s angry at her Granny for uprooting her, she’s insecure about her future, but she’s hopeful that maybe she can find a place for herself. There are some pretty shocking revelations made throughout the book, and Louisiana takes everything in stride, which is both remarkably resilient and gives the book a hopeful and uplifting feel to it.

It’s classic DiCamillo, and definitely a delight to visit with this character again.

The Dinner List

by Rebecca Serle
First sentence: “‘We’ve been waiting for an hour.’ That’s what Audrey says.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: September 11, 2018
Content: There is some (tasteful) sex, and a few swear words. (I don’t remember any f-bombs, but I may be wrong). It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

We all have seen those questions: Who would you want to have dinner with, if you could have it with anyone, dead or alive?

Sabrina wrote a list, and tonight, it came true. She’s having dinner with her five people: her (dead) alcoholic father who left when she was little, her favorite professor from college, her best friend, her ex-fiance, and Audrey Hepburn. They sit down for dinner, to talk, reconnect, and (perhaps) heal. Interspersed with the dinner conversation are chapters with the story of Sabrina and Tobias’s (he’s her ex) relationship.

It’s more than a cute romance book (though it is that, since there is an element of Fate to Sabrina and Tobias’s relationship), looking at forgiveness and what it takes to keep a relationship together. The personalities of the five dinner guests meshed really well, and I liked how they each played off each other. It was a sweet story (and I didn’t mind the twist too much) and an enjoyable read.

Sheets

by Brenna Thummler
First sentence: “It’s difficult to list, in order, the things I hate.”
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Review copy picked up at CI6
Release date: August 28, 2018
Content: There is a slight romance, and some bullying. It’ll be in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Marjorie Glatt’s mother has recently died and her father has gone into mourning. Which means that 13-year-old Marjorie is left taking care of everything: school, her five-year-old brother, and running the family laundromat. It’s a lot for a 13-year-old to take on, especially when one of the town’s residents, Mr. Saubertuck, keeps trying to put her out of business so he can start his 5-star spa and yoga center.

Walter is a recently deceased ghost, who doesn’t like being a ghost. So, he skips ghost town (yes, there is a ghost town!) and heads to the nearby city where he finds the Glatt’s laundromat, which turns out to be a ghost’s paradise. What they discover is that a girl and a ghost can, in fact, help each other out, and make both of their lives easier.

This is a super charming little graphic novel. It deals with a tough subject — grief and death — but in such a way that it’s accessible to kids and gets them to think  (and laugh!) in ways that a prose novel wouldn’t have. I love Thummler’s illustrations, from the ghosts who have personalities in spite of being covered with sheets to Marjorie and Mr. Saubertuck.

Delightful.