A Wealth of Pigeons

by Steve Martin and Harry Bliss
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Content: There’s some mild swearing and pictures of bums. It’s in the Graphic Novels section of the bookstore.

I saw a poster at the store for this book, and thought to myself: “Huh. So, Steve Martin is doing cartoons now.” And yep, I was right. He is! He has collaborated with New Yorker cartoonist Harry Bliss. Collaborated is the right word — sometimes Martin would send ideas to Bliss to illustrate, and sometimes Bliss would send illustrations to Martin to caption. Either way, what they have come up with is an utterly enjoyable collection of small comics that just delighted me.

Not all of them are hilarious — some of them did make me laugh out loud, but most just made me smile — but it’s just the utter charm of the book that won me over. There are dog jokes and cat jokes and Woodstock jokes and Bliss and Martin poking fun at themselves.

And there’s not much else to say. It’s delightful, and is the perfect thing to pick up at the end of this very long and often horrible year.

Carpe Jugulum

by Terry Pratchett
First sentence: “Through the shredded black clouds a fire moved like a dying star, falling back to earth–“
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Others in the series:  Equal RitesWyrd SistersWitches AbroadLords and LadiesMaskerade
Content: There’s a few jokes about sex and a bit of violence. It would be in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore if we had it.

We’re back in Lancre, and Magrat has just had a baby. They’re doing a naming ceremony, and her husband, King Verence, has decided that it would be “modern” and “diplomatic” to invite the residents of the next kingdom over, Uberwald. Which would have been a really great idea, except they’re vampires. Or rather: Vampyres, because they’re modern and sophisticated.

Thus starts a romp as Grany Weatherwax (who thought she didn’t get invited to the naming) goes into hiding as the vampyres take over, and it’s up to Nanny Ogg, Agnes, and Magrat (with some help from an Om preacher, Mighty Oats — go read Small Gods before this, because there are Easter eggs) to get rid of the infestation.

The thing I love most about Terry Pratchett’s books are the little things. Like a character named Igor, who limps and has a lisp and keeps complaining about the new vampires, saying “the old mathter did it better”. Or the page or two of thinly veiled penis jokes in the middle of a vampire fight that had me laughing out loud. Or the fact that the vampire castle is called Don’tgonearthe Castle. Or the Nac Mac Feegle (!), who show up (in an early iteration; they speak mostly gibberish and Nanny has to translate at one point. I like them better in Wee Free Men, but it was still delightful to see them). I think this is one of the better witch books: I liked how all the witches from Granny to Agnes got to play a role, and use their strengths to help.

It’s truly a delight, and a fitting end to the adult witch books. Now to dive into some more parts of Discworld!

Round Ireland with a Fridge

by Tony Hawks
First sentence: “I’m not, by nature, a betting man.”
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Content: It’s sweary, both in English and Iris, and there’s a ton of drinking. It’d be in the creative non-fiction section of the bookstore if we had it.

A while back, I happened to be watching vlogbrothers, and John recommended this one, and I thought to myself “That is the sort of book I need to get me through some dull winter days.”

I was right.

The basic premise is this: Tony got super drunk one night and his friend bet him 100 pounds that Tony couldn’t hitchhike the circumference of Ireland carrying a fridge. (There are Reasons this got bet, but that’s really unimportant.) Tony, for whatever reason that I can’t remember now, decided that it was a good bet to try and accomplish. So, he set out to Ireland, picked himself up a small, white, minifridge and a dolly, and started hitchhiking.

The boon came from when someone (again, I’m not sure who) got him in contact with the Gerry Ryan Show, which was broadcast throughout Ireland on the radio. They were all so mystified by why Tony would do this, so Gerry decided to put out calls to help Tony out. I’m pretty sure without that support, this would have been an entirely different book.

As it is, it’s a delightful (if often stupid) read about a delightful (if often stupid) trip. Tony met lots and lots of people, had a good sense of humor about it all, and in the end realized that humanity (at least humanity 22 years ago) isn’t all that bad. It’s a ridiculous book about a ridiculous endeavor.

Which is to say: I really enjoyed it. Tony had me laughing out loud at parts, and it’s a truly delightful book to tell people about (“No seriously: the fridge went surfing!”). It does have a nice travel element to it, though it’s less about the landscape of Ireland and more about the people Tony meets. At any rate, it was a delightful romp to the Emerald Isle in the middle of a cold winter.

Maskerade

by Terry Pratchett
First sentence: “The wind howled.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series:  Equal RitesWyrd SistersWitches Abroad, Lords and Ladies
Content: There’s some reference to sex, because that’s just who Nanny Ogg is. And some creative swearing. It would be in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore if we had it.

Ah, I have come to adore Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. Sure, some of the witches books are better than others (my personal favorite is still Witches Abroad), but I do adore the combination of Granny and Nanny taking on the world.

In this one, they head to Ankh-Morpork to tackle the opera. It seems that one of Lancre’s own, Agnes Nitt (aka Perdita X. Nitt) has moved to the big city to try and make her fortune, and has fallen in with the opera. That has a Ghost who seems to not only be haunting the opera house, but is murdering members of the cast and crew.

So, if this sounds vaguely like Phantom of the Opera, you’re probably right. Except — like a few of the other ones in the witches series — Pratchett takes the familiar bones of the story and overlays a funny and clever and insightful story with Granny and Nanny being their amazing selves. There’s a mystery in this one that they manage to solve (with some hilarious asides about being in the book publishing business), before getting Agnes to come back to Lancre and take up her True Calling as a witch.

Not my favorite of the series, but definitely fun! (I thought this was the last of them, but it turns out that there’s one more to go before I hit the Tiffany Aching series.)

Audio book: Hollow Kingdom

by Kira Jane Buxton
Read by Robert Petkoff
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: Oh, it’s foul. So much swearing. And pretty gross sometimes, too. It’s in the adult fiction section. Don’t give it to those who are faint-hearted.

There is no getting around it: this book is not for everyone. It’s just not. It swears more than a sailor and there are moment with the “zombies” that are just plain gross. That said, this is the most unique book I’ve read in a long long time, one that just nails the habits of animals and the way the natural world works and comes with a moral: GET OFF YOUR SCREENS HUMANS AND INTERACT WITH NATURE.

That said, our main narrator is S. T. (short for S**t Turd), a domesticated crow that, when his owner succumbs to the disease that has zombified humanity, takes off with his trusty Bloodhound sidekick, Dennis, to figure out how to function in the natural world. There are octopus oracles, cats with delusions of grandeur (are they delusions, really), a murder of stuck-up college crows, an adventure bald eagle, and lots and lots of close scrapes, near misses, and triumphs. And, on top of that, it’s so very funny. (At least I found it so. Even if you don’t read it, go find the first chapter narrated by Genghis Cat — it’s about four chapters in — and read that. Just that. It’s okay if you don’t read anything else. It’s sheer humor perfection.) I’m super picky about humor too, and so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself laughing out loud as much as I did.

It’s probably mostly in part because this book is sheer perfection on audio. The reader is PERFECT, nailing what I imagine all the animals would sound like, from S. T. and Genghis Cat to Winnie the Poodle and the other animals we encounter throughout the book. There are some thoughtful moments along the way, as well, and I’m serious about the moral: get off the screens and go connect with other people. IN REAL LIFE. It’s what might save us from the zombie apocalypse, in the end.

Audio book: My Life as a Goddess

by Guy Branum
Read by the author.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Listen to it at Libro.fm
Content: There was a bunch of swearing, including many f-bombs, and frank talk about sex. It’s in the humor section of the bookstore.

I have, in fact, mentioned my weakness for celebrity memoirs, especially if I can listen to it on audio. They just hit my happy button. And I’ve just found out that I enjoy them, even if I don’t know who the celebrity is! (As in this case.) I found out about thins one through Pop Culture Happy Hour when it was recommended by my favorite crank, Glen Wheldon. (Who actually has a reference in this book…) Anyway. This is basically Guy’s story about how he went from the boring farm town in the Sacramento Valley (I really enjoyed his diversions about agriculture!) to being a stand-up comic and a comedy writer. It was quite hilarious, but also introspective and touching. I think one of the things I like best about these kind of books is hearing someone else’s story, learning how they got to where they are today. Branum didn’t have an easy life; he was often ostracized as a child (not to mention his sister, who was really only alluded to) and his parents — especially his father — cut him off when he came out. He made a wrong turn going to law school, and I liked knowing that other people make wrong turns and turn out okay. I also thought his rant about the cultural biases against clubs (I may never listen to Shape of You by Ed Sheeran the same way again. Or Bohemian Rhapsody).

I loved every moment listening to Guy tell his story (the best bits where when he cracked himself up). A delightful book.

Dying to Meet You

by Kate Klise, Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise
First sentence: “By turning this page and the pages that follow, you hereby release the compilers of this correspondence from all liability related to thoughts, ruminations, hallucinations, and dreams (good or bad) of or pertaining to ghosts, friendly or otherwise.”
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Content: So, this is a weird one: the narrator’s an older man and there’s a bit of a love story, but the skill level is beginning chapter plus it’s full of illustrations. My professor has this as a middle school-level book, and the vocabulary level is a bit high, but I’d be tempted to put it in the Beginning Chapter books (Grades 1-3) section of the bookstore.

I’ll say this up front: the best part of this book is the names. Celebrated children’s author I.B. Grumply is looking for a house to rent so he can finish the latest book in his best-selling series. He rents 43 Old Cemetary Road, which is, unfortunately, haunted by the ghost of a librarian and unpublished writer, Olive C. Spence. It also comes with a kid,  Seymour Hope, whose parents (awful as they are) have up and left him. The basic plot is this: I. B. Grumply wants peace and quiet, doesn’t believe there’s a ghost, and rages at Seymour until his convinces Grumply that the ghost is real (and cooks a mean dinner) and then they set about purchasing the house so they can all live happily ever after.

So, this was one of the books in the mystery unit for school, and I have to disagree: there is NO mystery here. It’s a ghost story, plain and simple. And it works as a ghost story. I liked the humor — the names are the best — but otherwise, this one was entirely forgettable.

Series Books

Last week, we studied graphic novels and series books. I didn’t think these warranted their own post, so here they are…

The Adventures of Captain Underpants
by Dav Pilkey
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First sentence: Don’t know, since my copy was missing the first 14 pages…
Content: Simple sentences, lots of illustrations, and some bad puns (and underwear humor). It’s in the beginning chapter book (grades 1-2) section of the bookstore.

I don’t know how I made it this far, with kids and as a bookseller, and not have read any of the Captain Underpants books. I mean, I knew about them and all… and even some of my girls have read them. I just never did.

(If you don’t know the plot: a couple of 4th grade kids at an elementary school hypnotize their very mean principal and turn him into the hero Captain Underpants, except he’s not very good, so they have to go save him a lot.)

My thoughts? It was very silly. There’s not much else besides silly. I can see why kids like these: they read fast, and they’re silly. Pretty much it. At least I get it now?

Ivy and Bean
by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
First sentence: “Before Bean met Ivy, she didn’t like her.”
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Content: Simple words and illustrations. It’s in the beginning chapter book (grades 1-2) section of the bookstore.

This is another series I’ve sold and my kids have read, but I’ve never bothered with. It’s about how Bean, an adventurous 7-year-old, and Ivy, a more imaginative 7-year-old became friends.

I thought it was cute. Bean reminded me a lot of Ramona, especially in her relationship with her older sister, Nancy (who’s 11). Bean’s kind of rude, rambunctious, mischievous, and definitely prone to getting into trouble. She becomes friends with Ivy, who is a more creative, imaginative child, one day when she tries to play a trick on Nancy that backfires and Ivy comes to her rescue. They then combine their interests and try to place a spell on Nancy. I think Barrows captured the crazy imagination and “games” (as my kids called them) of 7-year-olds, and it made for a very delightful book.

Warriors: Into the Wild
by Erin Hunter
First sentence: “A half moon glowed on smooth granite boulders, turning them silver.”
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Content: It’s got more words and characters than other series books; it’s probably better for older readers. Warriors, and all the accompanying series have their own section at the bookstore.

So, I have to admit: I’ve been wondering what all the fuss is about this series. We sell it hand over fist (so much that it, like Magic Treehouse, has its own shelf!), and so there must be something about it that appeals to kids.

But, for the life of me, I don’t know what that is. The basic plot is that in this forest there are for clans of cats, that are always at odds with each other over territory (because food is scarce) and a house cat named Rusty decides to run away and join one of the clans. I’m sure something else happens, but honestly? I couldn’t finish it.

It’s not just that the writing was terrible. (Okay, it was passable, but it got really grating after a while.) It’s that I just didn’t care about the cats. I don’t care about their hyper masculinity (and all the warrior cats were male, the female cats were called “queens” and relegated to the nursery, except for the overall leader, which just seemed like a bone they threw) and their territorialism (really? This is what kids are reading? No wonder we’re so divided. If the ThunderCat Clan and the RiverCat Clan can’t get along, there’s no hope for us!) and the monologuing… It was all just Very Bad.

Though, I suppose, if I were an 8- or 9-year-old kid, I might think differently. (I checked: none of my kids ever read these. I wonder what that says about us?)

The Brixton Brothers: The Case of the Mistaken Identity

by Mac Barnett
First sentence: “Steve Brixton, a.k.a. Steve, was reading on his too-small bed.”
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Content: There are some slight intense moments, offset by humor. It would probably be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I think it could be an upper beginning chapter: there are short chapters, big print, and lots of illustrations.

Steve Brixton has always wanted to be a detective like the ones he’s always reading about. But it isn’t until  his teacher gives him an impromptu research paper assignment about American Quilting, that Steve gets  to see some, well, detective action. He’s set upon by Librarians (the bad sort) and Goons and he and his friend have to figure out who has stolen the Top Secret Codes from this historic quilt (I think… the plot wasn’t really the point of this one).

Goodness this was funny. Especially if you’ve read a lot of Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew books. Steve and his friend, Dana, are always getting into scrapes they have to get out of, and somehow (even though neither are terribly bright) figure out the mystery in the end. (My favorite exchanges were of the Steve: “Hey, chum” and Dana: “Don’t call me chum” variety. Every. Single. Time.) It was kind of a lame mystery — the solution was pretty obvious — but I don’t think the mystery is the point of these.

Even so, it was a ton of fun.

No More Dead Dogs

by Gordon Korman
First sentence: “When my dad was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, he once rescued eight Navy SEALs who were stranded behind enemy lines.”
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Content: There is some romance (just crushes and a bit of cheek kissing) and some mild cussing. The text is pretty simple. It would be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, though I bet 6th graders would like it too.

Wallace Wallace (the poor guy getting stuck with parents who named him that!) ALWAYS tells the truth. Mostly it’s because his father was a horrible liar (well, exaggerator/storyteller) who eventually left his mom, and so Wallace decided to never do that. Unfortunately, his truth-telling doesn’t always come off well. In fact, in seventh grade English class everyone was required to read a “classic” — the made up Old Shep, My Pal — book and do a report on it. Wallace’s report, because he won’t lie: the book was awful. And please, no more dead dogs.

That report lands him in detention with the English teacher, who is also directing a play — an adaptation of, you guessed it, Old Shep — and so Wallace can’t go to football practice and instead ends up at play rehearsal. And, of course, advocates for changing the play. It’s more complex than that; it also involves pranks and Wallace being set up, and everyone not liking him, and a small middle school romance, but that’s the general picture of it.

I hadn’t ever read Gordon Korman’s books before, but I’d heard that he was funny and he gets kids. Well, maybe this was just dated — it was written in 2000 — which is often a problem with contemporary realistic fiction. But whatever the reason it really fell flat. The plot was silly (supposedly funny?). I guessed who the prankster was (was I supposed to? Or was it supposed to be a big reveal?) before the characters. I thought the kids were brats (maybe all middle schoolers are). And I just didn’t find it funny. But, humor is subjective: not everyone finds the same things amusing. So, I can forgive that. I can see how kids would eat this up: what I found annoying as an adult, they could relate to. And so I can see how it has value, even if I didn’t like it much at all.