A Man Called Ove

by Fredrik Backman
First sentence:”Ove is fifty-nine.”
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Content: There’s swearing, including some f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Ove’s beloved wife died six months ago. And he’s been at a loss ever since. He’s gone to work, but since he was terminated, he’s really lost all purpose. So, he’s decided to kill himself. That is, until his new neighbors — Parvanah and her husband and children — decide to nose their way into Ove’s life.

It’s a simple plot, but it’s not the plot that makes this this book a good one. I have one HUGE quibble with it though: Ove is NOT fifty-nine. I know it says that in the first sentence, but he doesn’t act like a 59-year-old. he acts like mt grandpa did when he was 85 or so. So, once I aged Ove up about 20 years in mt mind, I was able to sit back and enjoy the story. I loved Parvanah, and her big heart and stubborn refusal to leave Ove alone. Ove reminded me of my grandpa, and so I knew there was a good heart under his crusty exterior, but I enjoyed the unfolding of the story, and the way those in his life included him. It was heart-warming and a lovely reminder that there are good people out there.

A very good story.

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Kids of Appetite

kidsofappetiteby David Arnold
First sentence: “Consider this: billions of people in the world, each with billions of I ams.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: September 20, 2016
Content: There are a bunch of f-bombs, some teenage smoking, and some depictions of domestic abuse. It will be in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

Vic is many things: a teenage boy, a son whose father has died of cancer, a lover of music and math. He also has Moebius syndrome, but he doesn’t let that define him. No, these days, he lets his dad’s absence and his mom’s new relationship define him. And one night, when things become unbearable, Vic grabs his dad’s ashes and takes off. Out there, he runs into an interesting group of kids, under the protection of a Congolese immigrant named Baz. They fly under the radar, taking people in who need help, give them the help they need, and send them on their way. And Vic most definitely needs help. Especially after he opens his father’s urn and discovers instructions as to where his ashes should be spread. So Vic, with his new-found friends, takes it upon himself to scatter his dad according to his wishes.

Things aren’t that simple, though. Vic gets caught up in the lives of what comes to be called Kids of Appetite, and when the uncle of one kid ends up dead (and Baz is a suspect), Vic finds himself in the police station.

There’s a lot going on in this novel: there’s a main character with a disability, and some discussion on etiquette when dealing with someone who doesn’t look like you. There’s diversity and refugee and immigration issues with Baz and his younger brother as they try to make a new life for themselves. There’s a semi-traditional love story. There’s a murder. But, even with all these weird eclectic elements, it works. It’s such a character-driven novel and each and every character (well at least with the Kids of Appetite) is a gem. The novel alternates between Vic and Mad, an 18-year-old girl who is kind-of a runaway as well, and each of their voices was delightful. I liked that there was a dark edge to this, that there are things to think about, and yet it’s ultimately a story of hope and redemption.

Highly, highly recommended.

Me Before You

mebeforeyouby Jojo Moyes
First sentence: “When he emerges from the bathroom, she is awake, propped up against the pillows and flicking through the travel brochures that were beside his bed.”
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Content: There’s a bunch of f-bombs scattered throughout (but not enough to seem excessive) and some talk of sex (but none actual). It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’ve known about this one for years, and I’ve just been putting reading it off. Perhaps it’s my aversion to all things “everyone” reads (I know: I should read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, but…). Maybe I thought it would be maudlin and depressing. The movie came out (and went, here), and I still didn’t really feel much of a need. Then, as summer book bingo is winding down, I had the “Everyone But Me Has Read” square, and I figured this was what needed to fill it.

(I’m assuming y’all know what the plot is.) What I wasn’t prepared for was how much I enjoyed it. I loved Lou; she was smart and spunky and real. I loved her relationship with Will, that it was complicated but also honest and open. And I loved that Moyes faced the ideas of a Life Worth Living head-on. I’m not sure I agree with the conclusions, but it made me cry and it gave me something to think about.

In short, maybe the hype was right about this one. Now, to see how the movie holds up.

The Piper’s Son

piperssonby Melina Marchetta
First sentence: “The string slices into the skin of his fingers and no matter how tough the calluses, it tears.”
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Content: There’s a bunch of f-bombs and some talk of sex (nothing graphic). It has a more adult sensibility than I was expecting, and although the library has it in its Teen section, I’d be tempted to put it in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Two years after the death of his favorite uncle in a terrorist bombing in London, Tom’s dropped out of university, living with some crap flatmates, and basically a mess. Then, hitting rock bottom, he finds his way back to his Aunt Georgie (who’s been knocked up by her ex-boyfriend) and begins to piece his life back together.

Some books are plot-driven and some are character-driven, and this one is the latter. There’s not much plot-wise — mostly it’s the ways in which Tom and Georgia (and the rest of the McKee family) are dealing (or not dealing) with the crap in their life — but the characters make this book worthwhile. Tom is brash and abrasive at first, but he grows so much that by the end, I was sobbing. And Georgia gives the book a heart that otherwise would be missing. This family is so messed up, but so fierce in their love for each other; it’s truly one of those books that show how families really do come in all shapes and sizes.

Technically, this is a sequel to Saving Francesca, but you can definitely read it as a stand-alone. And it’s so very worth it.

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.

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day

msbixbyby John David Anderson
First sentence: “Rebecca Roundabush has cooties.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s about sixth graders, and it’s a little more mature in content for the younger set. That said, it’s in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Everyone has one elementary teacher (I hope) that they remember fondly, that made school a fantastic experience. Mine was my 5th grade teacher, Ms. Westenskow, who cross-country skied to school one winter day, who  made the Revolutionary War interactive, for whom we would all do anything for. I don’t know what’s happened to her over the years (we moved after 5th grade and I started over), but I still remember fifth grade fondly.

Ms. Bixby is that teacher, the one who believes in the potential of each child, the one who reads cool books, the one who is cool, and who makes learning fun. And friends Topher, Steven, and Brand are among those three. So, when Ms. Bixby gets diagnosed with pancreatic cancer it devastates them (and the class, but these guys are our narrators) and after she leaves before the class-planned party, these three boys decide to take Ms. Bixby’s last day to her.

And thus begins our adventure. Skipping school on a Friday, the boys head out to get Ms. Bixby the things they think she needs: a good book, an excellent cheesecake, wine, and McDonald’s french fries. None of them are easy to get, but that’s part of the fun of this book.  It’s one part adventure, one part reminiscing as we get to know Topher, Steve, and Brand through the chapters they narrate, and it’s one part love story to the power of a great educator.

And, yes, I cried. But I felt that the book earned those tears, which is always a good thing.

Excellent.

When Friendship Followed Me Home

whenfriendshipby Paul Griffin
First sentence: “You’d have to be nuts to trust a magician.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s not a difficult read, and there’s nothing objectionable, but the subject matter is probably more serious than your average 8- or 9-year-old will want. That said, if they’re interested, I’d give it to them. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Ben has had a rough life. He was dropped off at a group home when he was a baby, abandoned by his mother. He made friends, but one of them died after an accident. That lead to him meeting a social worker, an older woman whose partner had died, and him being adopted by her. Everything was looking up, especially after he found a stray dog (who ended up being the dog of a woman who had recently become homeless) and met a new friend, Halley, who is in remission from a rare cancer.

If you’ve read ANY middle grade/YA books, you know where this one is headed.

On some level, I wanted to be annoyed with this book. I felt like Griffin employed every single cliche out there: Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Dead Parents, Bad Parents, Cancer Book, it’s all in there. I wanted to be annoyed at it. I was a little frustrated when I realized the direction it was taken. But… I didn’t hate it. I didn’t.

Partially, it’s because it’s self-aware. There’s one quote, early on when Ben and Halley are talking about a story they’re writing, where Halley says, “Well, you have to get rid of [parents] somehow, and that is the most merciful yet expeditious way. Otherwise how do you turn her into an orphan? This is a middle grade story, for like ages ten to fourteen, and the rule is you need an orphan.”

I laughed, and as the book went on, I realized that Griffin knew what he was doing. He was Making Points, but subtly, and I didn’t hate him for his messages. I liked Ben and Halley and Flip the dog, among other characters, so I could get past the messages. And even though I wasn’t Moved by the book, I did enjoy reading the stories. And it was, in fact, written well.

So, I’m torn. I didn’t Love it like I wanted, but I didn’t loathe it either.