The Twits

thetwitsby Roald Dahl
First sentence: “What a lot of hairy-faced men there are around nowadays.”
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Content: This one’s slim, with lots of illustrations and simple words. It’s perfect for those younger readers who want an introduction to Dahl and for reluctant readers. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

For the record: I’m beginning to think that Dahl wrote kids books so he could be grumpy about parenting and social trends and disguise it as “humor” for kids.

This time, he’s upset about beards, about cruel adults (he’s always upset about cruel adults; I also think he thinks most adults are cruel), and about the mistreatment of animals (which is a new one).

The plot: the Twits are horrible people. They’re ugly (as are all horrible people in Dahl’s books), they treat each other horribly, they treat their pet monkeys abominably. and then they get their comeuppance. End of story.

And yet, it was funny. The Twits’ pranks on each other were pretty silly and (mostly) harmless. The way the monkeys got back was absolutely brilliant (if implausible), and I admit, I did laugh. (K on the other hand, would HATE this book. She has a real problem with humor at the expense of other people.)

I’ll be interested to see what the kids think of it at book group.

Matilda

matildaby Roald Dahl
First sentence: “It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers.”
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Content: It’s a bit longer than Charlie, and a bit more complex. But, that said, I’d give it to a confident 8-year-old reader. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

So, I’ve read this one before, but it’s been years and years and years and even though I’ve watched the movie a bunch (it’s one of my girls’ favorites), I wasn’t quite prepared for how DARK Matilda is.

I mean, all the usual Dahl themes are there: a powerless, nice child (not poor, though that comes with Ms. Honey) is bullied (by her parents and other adults) and discovers something grand within herself in order to overcome. But, the adults are beyond awful. They’re abusive. The Wormwoods (who are hilarious in the film) are corrupt and neglectful. But, it was Miss Trunchbull, who I always condered just an annoyance, who really got me this time. She’s not annoying: she’s an abuser. And perhaps it’s where I am in my life, but that didn’t sit well with me. I’m not entirely sure why; Matilda and Ms. Honey have a happy ending, after all, and Miss Trunchbull (not to mention Mr. Wormwood) get their comeuppance. But, it kind of rang hollow for me.

That said, it’s also not as funny (or at least clever) as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  It was sweet — both Matilda and Ms. Honey are sweet characters amid all the lame, awful people — but it wasn’t clever. (Dark undertones!) I did enjoy it, but I’m not sure it’s my favorite. (Then again, I still have four more books to read this summer.)

The book group discussion, however, was fantastic! I had 20 kids ranging in age from 5 to 12, and they all had amazing things to say. One boy said he had read it eight times, and had some smart thoughts on it. As did many others. We talked about favorite characters and whether the Wormwoods were funny (yes) and whether Mr. Wormwood deserved the pranks (yes!). Ms. Trunchbull was deemed to be too mean to be funny, though one girl insisted that her parents would have believed her if she had told them what Ms. Trunchbull was doing. We talked a lot about the chocolate cake, and many pointed out that an 18-inch cake really isn’t that big. One girl said it was “just right”. And my favorite comments were when we were talking how Dahl makes ugly=mean and beautiful=good. One girl pointed out that ugly people can’t help being ugly and that they could be nice and beautiful people can be mean. And another girl said that maybe Dahl was just trying to make the character’s inward ugliness show outward. Both excellent.

So, maybe not my favorite, but it was a great discussion.

 

Audio book: Wild

wildby Cheryl Strayed
Read by Bernadette Dunne
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Content: Drug use, sex, drinking, yeah: it’s all in here. Definitely not for the faint of heart.

I was wandering around, looking for a new audio book, and stumbled on this one. I figured so many people have raved about it that it couldn’t be terrible. So, I picked it up.

If you’ve been under a rock, it’s Cheryl’s personal story of her redemption, of sorts, after her mother died and her marriage fell apart (due to her infidelities and drug addiction). She decides that what she needs to do is hike the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Washington (actually, Oregon came later, after she discovered that the Sierras were snowed in) alone. She has no experience, she has no idea what’s in store for her. And yet, you have to admire her for going through with it, even when — especially when — the going gets hard.

But I couldn’t get past the “poor me” vibe that I felt was under the whole book. Maybe it’s because Cheryl didn’t narrate her own book and I never really got past that. Or maybe I’m just too judgmental (which I am, unfortunately). But while I really enjoyed the moments when Cheryl was battling against the trail, and mostly succeeding, I didn’t have much patience for Cheryl herself. (Now that I write this, it sounds really judgmental. Maybe it’s just wrong time wrong book?) I was talking to someone who had a similar experience with Eat, Pray, Love (which I really liked). Perhaps we’re more apt to judge women who travel because their lives are broken than those (men?) who just up and leave (I’m looking at you, Bill Bryson) to go experience the world.

I don’t know. I just know that I didn’t connect with this one as much as I hoped it would.

Momo

by Michael Ende
First sentence: “Long, long ago, when people spoke languages quite different from our own, many fine, big cities already existed in the sunny lands of the world.”
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Content: If you can read The Phantom Tollbooth, then this one is for you. It’d be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This book is one of the reasons why, busy as I am, I won’t give up an in-person book group. (I’ve been a slacker with my on-line one lately…) While I read The Neverending Story by Ende as a child (when the movie came out…), I had no idea (and no inclination to find out, for some reason) that he’d written any other books. But, because it’s probably been 30 years since I’d read Neverending Story (or seen it for that matter; we may have tried showing it to the kids), I had no idea what to expect.

What I got was a sweet little fable. Momo is a little orphan girl that shows up in this town and moves into the old amphitheater. What endears her to the people in this town to Momo is twofold: she has a remarkable imagination, and she truly listens to them. Then one day, the grey men show up and infiltrate the town, stealing time from people. Suddenly, no one has enough time for Momo to listen to them, and everyone except the children stay away. And even the children are different. Momo happens to find out the grey men’s plan, and then sets out on an adventure to get her friends back.

It reminded me most of The Phantom Tollbooth: it was a bit on the preachy end — YEAH I get it, unplug from being busy and actually CONNECT with people — but it was also sweet and tender and had that late-60s/early-70s feel to it. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it is very sweet.

I’ll Give You the Sun

by Jandy Nelson
First sentence: “This is how it all begins.”
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Content: There is some teen drinking, a (non-graphic) rape scene, and several f-bombs. That, and because of the subject matter, puts it in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Noah and Jude are twins, separate people but connected in thought and purpose (generally). So much so that they’ve become NoahandJude, pratically inseparable. That is, until the summer they turn 14. Then everything starts to fall apart. Jude becomes “wild”; Noah retreats into his own world until a new boy shows up next door. They end up “dividing” their parents, each vying for the other parent’s attention and love. On top of that, they are fiercely competing to get into the local prestigious art high school. It’s a mess.

Two years later, things aren’t much better. Jude made it into the school; Noah (who was arguably the better artist) did not. They’re still dealing with the aftermath of their mother’s fatal accident. They harbor secrets. And they’re no longer NoahandJude. They’re not even Noah and Jude. They’re two separate planets, who never talk to each other. It’s different from what it was before, but no better.

Did I mention that Jude sees the ghost of her dead grandmother, and senses the presence of her dead mom?

It’s thanks to the two ghosts that Jude searches out Guillermo, sculptor extraordinaire and Latino Mystical Guide, and finds not only salvation but True Love.

Yeah, the book derailed just about there.

For the record: everyone in this book is a Tortured Soul Needing Redemption. And they all find it together. I did enjoy Guillermo — in fact, he was the most interesting character — but that doesn’t change the fact that his role in the book was to cause a change in the white people around him. He was Passionate Lover, he was Father Figure, he was Spiritual Guide. And sometimes he was a living-breathing person, but those times were rare.

And don’t even get me started on the whole Soul Mate thing. Ugh.

What saved this book from being Truly Horrible was the writing — Nelson paints the world vividly, and I do have to admit that there was some good chemistry between Jude and her Soul Mate, even if that’s a trite trope and needs to be done away with. But what I really loved was the art. I loved Guillermo’s giant sculptures and the way Nelson depicted the process of art. I loved Noah’s chapters and the way he’d come up with paintings for everything. I loved how she considered fashion an art.

In the end, I did respect what Nelson was trying to do. But it’s not a perfect book by any means.

The Vacationers

by Emma Straub
First sentence: “Leaving always came as a surprise, no matter how long the dates had been looming on the calendar.”
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Content: There are a dozen (or so) f-bombs, some graphic talk about sex and some actual sex (which isn’t graphic). It’s in the adult fiction section of the library.

The Posts are falling apart. Their marriage is suffering because of Jim’s affair (with a woman younger than his son). Their 28-year-old son, Bobby, is a loser. And their daughter, Sylvia, who has just graduated and is off to college, hates living with her parents. So Frannie does the only thing she knows how: rents a house in Mallorca (an island off of Spain) and forces everyone — including her best friend Charles and his husband, as well as her son’s girlfriend — on vacation for two weeks.

It’s such an adorable fantasy. You know? Life is falling apart, so let’s rent a beach house and miraculously everything will get better. Not real life. Or at least my real life.

It was very voyeuristic, this book. I really didn’t care much about Jim’s inner life, or his lust for the editorial assistant he had an affair with. Or Bobby’s relationship with Carmen (who I liked, in spite of the book’s efforts to make me despise her). Or even Sylvia’s inner angst and obsession with losing her virginity. (Which she does, on the beach, to a beautiful Mallorcan boy.) No: the people I was most interested in were Charles and Lawrence because they were the most stable, the most reasonable, the most… well, likable. They were trying to adopt a baby, and there were some struggles with belonging. But if the whole book had been from their perspective, it would have seemed much less snobby. Annoying.

The thing that really kept me reading, however, was that Straub did a wonderful job capturing place and food. Maybe not perfectly, but enough that I was interested in knowing more about Mallorca and I could almost imagine the food.

It’s too bad that I had to experience such a lovely place and read about such lovely food with such crass characters.

Audiobook: The Cuckoo’s Calling

by Robert Galbraith
read by Robert Glenister
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Content: None of the murders are grisly — they’re all alluded to — and there’s some talk of sex, but none actual on screen. However, the language is very adult (including many, many f-bombs), and for that reason, it’s in the mystery section (well, also because it’s a mystery) of the bookstore.

Cormoran Strike is hard up on his luck. Retired from the military due to an accident in which he lost part of his leg, and recently broken up with his posh, upper class girlfriend, the only thing Strike has is his private detective practice. And even that’s not doing terribly well. He can’t afford the temporary secretary that’s shown up, and he’s pretty sure he’s going to default on the loan his estranged (but famous) father gave him.

Things are looking pretty down when John Bristow, adopted brother of supermodel Lula Landry walks in Strike’s office with an incredible story. Bristow claims that the police have it wrong: that Landry’s death was not a suicide as originally thought, but rather murder. Someone pushed her off her third floor balcony to her death. The question is: who?

I really didn’t have expectations going into this one. I knew it was J. K. Rowling but I don’t really read many mysteries, so I wasn’t dying to get to this one. But, when I saw the audio book, I figured it was worth a try. I didn’t love it, but I was intrigued by it.

Perhaps it was because I knew it was Rowling before I went in, but I could tell that it was Rowling’s work. The way she described things (and because it’s audio, I don’t have a handy example) felt similar to the Harry Potter books. That, and she really does have a gift for names. The plotting was good as well; she kept up a good pace, and even though there were some bits that weren’t vitally necessary, it wasn’t under-edited. And the twist at the end didn’t come out of nowhere; something which was incredibly important to me.

I did feel like she under-utilized the administrative assistant, Robin. She gave us background on her, and made her a sympathetic character, but really didn’t have her do much of anything. I kept waiting for a grand Robin Moment that never quite came. The narration was excellent; I was impressed with the range of accents and voices that Glenister could do; perhaps one of the reasons I stayed interested in the book was because his narration was so compelling.

That said, it was a good, solid mystery. Nothing too spectacular, but nothing mundane or pedantic. Which means it’s just about right.

Slated

by Teri Terry
First sentence: “I run.”
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Content: It’s a pretty intense book, and I think the plot would be a bit difficult for younger readers to understand. But there’s nothing “objectionable” it. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Kyla has no memory beyond the past six months she’s been in the hospital in London. See, she’s been Slated by the government: a process done to criminals and terrorists to remove their memories. It’s most effective the younger you are — Kyla is only 16 — and after the process, they tie your consciousness to a device called a Levo, which monitors your endorphin levels. If you get too low, you black out. And die. Obviously, it’s supposed to reform the people who have it done, make them happy, productive members of society.

Except it didn’t quite work on Kyla.

While she doesn’t have any memories of her former life, she has nightmares. And she’s not as compliant as she should be. And so, back with her “Mom” and “Dad” in their small village outside of London, she starts noticing things. Noticing things which leads to questions. And we all know that in books like this, questions are never good.

This is a much less futuristic dystopian fantasy than most, and that’s one of the things, I think, that make it stand out. (The other being that it’s set in London. It’s nice to know that Big Brother is happening over there, too!) Sure, it’s set in the future — roughly 30 or 40 years — but there’s a lot that ties it to contemporary culture. The anti-terrorism movement, which leads to a really broad definition of “terrorist”. A government that seeks to control their population. The other thing that made this one unique for me is that Kyla wasn’t (for this book, at least; it might change) a lynchpin on which the Revolution of the Evil Government resides. She’s a girl who’s lost her memory but retained her consciousness. And it’s not until her friends start disappearing that she feels she needs to take action.

That lack of action is also a downside. I’m hoping that this is mostly just a world-building book, and that there’s more going on in the next one. While I did find the situations Terry put her character in fascinating, by the end of the book, there was more unanswered questions then there were answered ones. Additionally, I think the love interest was a bit forced; there was no need for her friendship to end up as a romance, and because of that, there was no underlying chemistry between the two of them.

That said, it was unique enough to hold my attention, I am curious to see where the next book goes.

Audiobook: The Art Forger

by B. A. Shapiro
read by Xe Sands
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Content: All kinds of swearing, plus some explicit (but not graphic) sex. Definitely deserves to be in the adult fiction section.

Claire Roth is three years out of grad school, and she’s been blacklisted as an artist. It was a bit of a big deal with one of her professors whom she was having an affair with (and who ended up killing himself). But now, when the owner of the most prestigious art gallery in Boston — Aiden Markel of Markel G — comes to her with a Degas — no, the Degas from the 1990 Gardiner heist — asking her to create a forgery of it, she can’t refuse.

Well, she could have. But then we wouldn’t have a story.

This, in many ways, is a story of obsession and compulsion, and because I watch White Collar (which is a quite fantastic show, that) I was already familiar with the idea of how art becomes a compulsion. That said, I still don’t… get it. The depth of obsession, the idea of owning something priceless. It’s just paintings on a wall, right?

That said, I really enjoyed the journey Shapiro took us on. The initial journey of Claire’s painting the forgery, the gradual unfolding of how she became blacklisted, the relationship between her and  Aiden, and the unraveling of all their best-laid plans. Shapiro had a lot of different threads going, and she kept me wondering how they all fit together.

Which does lead me to the end. It all felt too tidy for me. She did manage to wrap everything up with a bit of an idealistic bow (it is fiction after all), and I’m not quite sure I’m satisfied with the way she did that. But that said, getting there was such an intriguing ride, I’m not unhappy I took it.

One note on the audiobook: while Sands was a good narrator — I loved that she did all the voices, though her men all sounded the same — she made Claire often out to be simpering. And that grated on me. Not enough to bail on the book, but I didn’t see Claire as someone who was insecure and simpering. Indecisive and unsure of herself, perhaps. But not simpering.

That’s just a personal problem, though, and only with the audiobook. The book itself was quite fascinating.

The Crane Wife

by Patrick Ness
First sentence: “
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Review copy given me by the Penguin rep.
Content: Multiple f-bombs and other language, some off-screen sex. Rightly sits with the adult fiction at the bookstore.

George is your very typical kind-of-loser guy. He’s divorced (nine years) with a child (who’s in her 20s) and can’t seem to keep a relationship (he’s too nice; they always break it off, but he’s always friends with them after). Even though he’s the owner of a print shop, he’s a bit of a pushover, letting his one employee, Mehmet, push him around. But, because he’s nice, because he’s George, when a crane with an arrow piercing its wing unexpectedly lands in his suburban London backyard in the middle of the night, he helps it out.

The next day, a woman named Kumiko shows up in George’s print shop. And suddenly, George’s life — and the life of his daughter, Amanda — are irrevocably changed.

Yes, this is a fairy tale. A very charming, sweet, wonderful fairy tale. Ness divides its time between George, Amanda, and Kumiko’s tales, but does so in a way that doesn’t feel awkward or forced. But it’s not just a fairy tale — or at least not just a one-dimensional fairy tale — art (in this case, paper cuttings) and a slight Japanese-inspired tale within a tale play major roles, which gives the book depth and substance.

But what I enjoyed most with this one was Ness’s use of the language. The fact that one of his characters, Rachel (who is very confused and not at all nice), speaks entirely in questions. Or the way he uses “…” to represent silence. Or the way George and Amanda think of themselves. And descriptive sentences like “He loved physical books with the same avidity other people loved horses or wine or prog rock.” (60) or “Stories do not explain. They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point. A story never ends at the end.” (141-142) or “She stopped, her face scrunching up in some really, really unattractive crying.” (161) There were others, but those are the ones that I marked.

It did all the things I want a book to do: it gave me characters to care about, and transported me away from the dreary winter months. It delighted me, and made me wish I was even a tiny bit artistic.

Delightful.