The Road to Little Dribbling

littledribblingby Bill Bryson
First sentence: “One of the things that happens when you get older is that you discover lots of new ways to hurt yourself.”
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Content: There’s a bunch (a dozen or so?) of f-bombs scattered throughout, and it’s a bit old-n-cranky for the younger set. But if you’re interested in that sort of thing (plus England), then it’s in the Creative Non-Fiction section of the bookstore.

It’s been 20 years since Notes from a Small Island, and Bryson’s publisher thought it’d be an interesting thing for Bryson to go back and revisit places. Well, he decided not to do that. Partially because he’s not one to do things exactly the same way, and partially because he applied for British citizenship and one of the questions asked what were the two farthest cities in Great Britain, he drew a line down the middle of the country and decided to loosely follow it, visiting places.

It doesn’t sound like much to hang a book on, but this is Bill Bryson after all. It’s been a while since he’s done a travel book, and I was more than happy that he got back to it. I was much more willing to read this one than I was Notes (I didn’t “get it”. I wonder what that means now.) and I thoroughly enjoyed traveling to all these small, out of the way, strange little English places with him.

But what really struck me is that Bryson is a bit of a crank. A lovable, affable, hilarious crank, but a crank nonetheless. He’s one of those people who think that it Used To Be Better back when he was younger, and that the world — or, more particularly, Great Britain — is going to pot. And yet, the affection he has for his adopted country is obvious. He adores Great Britain, not just with all his faults but because of them. In spite of his occasional crankiness (or maybe because of it?) I had a hilarious, fun, and sometimes insightful (his throw-away comments on U. S. gun control in the last chapter are spot-on) time traveling England with him.

The Porcupine of Truth

by Bill Konigsburg
First sentence: “The Billings Zoo has no animals.”
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Content: There’s a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

Carson Smith has drawn the short stick for the summer: he’s stuck in Billings, Montana with his mom. They’ve moved back to take care of his dying, alcoholic father whom Carson hasn’t seen in 14 years. It’s not exactly the Ideal Summer at all.

Then Carson, completely by chance, meets Aisha and strikes up a friendship. No romance here: Aisha’s a lesbian who has been kicked out of the house by her super religious dad. She’s having a winner of a summer too, so she moves in with Carson and his parents. Everything is shaping out to be a complete Win until Carson and Aisha start nosing through boxes in the basement and uncover some clues to Carson’s grandfather’s disappearance back in the early 1980s. One thing leads to another and soon Carson and Aisha are on a road trip to find Carson’s grandfather.

This was a hard book for me to read, as a religious person. Mostly because Carson and Aisha are incredibly hostile — for good reason, I think — toward organized religion. I can understand why: too often people hide behind Religion, using it to justify their prejudices and to promote hate. But not everyone does, and I was made uncomfortable by the broad strokes: all people who are “religious” are bigots.

Thankfully, there is growth with these characters, and I appreciated that. I appreciated that, overall, Konigsberg treated everything thoughtfully and carefeull. Which meant that no one was truly black and white and that both Carson and Aisha learned things along the way.

There’s a lot to think about in this book, and I do think it’s a story, with all its broken people and hurtful relationships, that needs to be told. I just wish religion and religious people came off better.

A quick aside: Konigsberg stopped by the store as part of his Porcupines for Trevor tour. While it wasn’t super well-attended, we got a small crowd and we sat in a circle talking about religion and the LGBTQ community. It was a very interesting (and civil) discussion, one that I was glad we had.

Also: we took a selfie. He was very kind, and very, very tired.

Kissing in America

by Margo Rabb
First sentence: “According to my mother, my first kiss happened on a Saturday in July.”
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Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s a few mild swear words, s**t being the most prevalent. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Eva Roth adores romance novels, much to her feminist mother’s chagrin. Eva loves the sweeping romance, the rugged men (who are ruggedly handsome), the idea of falling in love. She lives in New York City, though; someplace where there aren’t rugged cowboys or Highland Scotsmen to sweep her off her feet.

Then she meets Will: cool, on the swim team, completely inaccessible. Until he is: he’s kissing her on the sidewalk in front of a subway stop, and Eva’s world changes completely.

Enough so that when Will moves to LA  to live with his dad, Eva concocts a way to go see him: she and her best friend, Annie, are going on a cross-country bus trip to be on this Smart Kids game show. Just so she can see Will.

It sounds like a fluffy romance, no? And in many ways it is: Eva falls in love, other people fall in love, there is sweeping kisses and lots of corny romance novel references. But this novel has a darker undercurrent running through it: The reason for the bus trip is that Eva has been afraid to fly, ever since her father died in a freak plane crash.  In fact, the novel turns out less to be about romance than about Eva’s relationship with her mother, grief, and moving on since her father’s death. Which is not what I was expecting.

Even though it wasn’t quite the fluffy romance I was expecting, I did enjoy the story. I liked Eva’s relationship with her best friend, Annie. (Though I wanted to smack her aunt and mother. Seriously overprotective, even if it is understandable.) I liked the road trip part, with Eva getting out of her bubble and routine. (Though it was quite tame compared to, say, the bus trip in Mosquitoland.) And I did like that everything wasn’t “happily ever after”;  it was realistic while being hopeful, and that worked for me.

A good summer read.

Shadow Scale

by Rachel Hartman
First sentence: “I returned to myself.”
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Others in the series: Seraphina
Release date: March 10, 2015
Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at work.
Content: It’s pretty complex, when it comes to keeping tabs on everything that’s going on, and it’s fairly long and slow-moving as well. It’s also more mature in its sensibilities, though there’s not much else that would put it in the Teen section (grades 9+). Even so, that’s where I shelve these.

There’s so much going on in this novel that, much like Seraphina, it’s kind of difficult to put all of what’s going on down on paper. (Or the internet, for that matter.) On the one hand, this is a straight-forward road trip: to help her friend Glisselda, who is now queen of Goredd, Seraphina goes on a quest to find the other ityasaari — those who are half-dragon, half-human. She feels that, if she gets everyone in one place, they’ll be able to create a mind-field to keep the renegade dragons out of the city. Seraphina initially thinks this will be a simple task: go into the surrounding countries, locate the ityasaari, get back to Goredd and they will all live happily-ever-after.

Thankfully for the reader, it’s not that simple. There are obstacles in Serpahina’s way, and not least of all is Jannoula, an abused, embittered, scheming ityasaari who has the ability to manipulate the humans (and dragons) around her. She is there every step of the way, adding conflict, tension, and suspense to Seraphina’s path.

Also like Seraphina, there’s much to love about this one. Hartman’s world-building is impeccable, and it’s fantastic to see what she’s done with the other cultures, religions, and people surrounding Goredd. The romance that was budding at the end of Seraphina is still here, but it takes a back-seat to Seraphina’s journeys and allows Seraphina to become her own strong woman independent of anyone else. That said, there’s some surprises by the end of the book, ones that I thought were thoroughly refreshing.

Speaking of the end, about two-thirds of the way through, I worried that Hartman wasn’t going to wrap up the story, but she pulled through. In classic high-fantasy style, she gives us an epic and truly fantastic ending, one that is thoroughly satisfying while staying true to the story, characters, and world she built.

Hartman is truly a writer to keep an eye out for. Whatever she touches is just amazing.

I Was Here

by Gayle Forman
First sentence: “The day after Meg died, I received this letter:”
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Review copy pilfered from the Penguin rep pile.
Content: There is drinking, illusions to pot smoking, language, and some tasteful sex. It’s also a post-high school graduation book. For these reasons, it’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Cody and Meg have been best friends for as long as Cody can remember. Since her mother was gone pretty much all the time, Cody practically grew up at Meg’s house. Meg’s family became her family, Meg’s dreams her dreams. Until they graduated, and Meg got a full-ride scholarship away from their small Eastern Washington town and to a fancy liberal arts school in Tacoma. Suddenly, Cody was the one left behind.

A year later, though, Meg committed suicide. Leaving Cody behind again.

An aside here, in case this sounds crass: this book isn’t about Meg’s suicide. Not really. It’s about Cody, and her reactions to Meg’s suicide. Dealing with grief, dealing with loss, dealing with the reasons why. Meg isn’t a character in this book, even though you kind of get to know her. She’s a reason. A cause.

Cody heads to Tacoma to clean out Meg’s apartment and discovers an encrypted file. Suddenly what seemed like a simple suicide looks more suspicious. And with the help of one of Meg’s roommates (stereotypical Korean computer whiz) and an ex-boyfriend (tortured rock soul whom Cody ends up “saving”) Cody tries to make sense of the senseless.

In the end, it was less of a mystery than I hoped for and more of a romance. And while the romance was okay, I kind of thought it took away from the whole grief thing. Cody is hurt, and maybe one needs a Man to heal, but it kind of felt out of place here. Forman is a good writer, though, and she got across Cody’s raw grief and her questions that didn’t have answers and her need for closure.

A good read, if not an exceptional one.

Mosquitoland

by David Arnold
First sentence: “I am Mary Iris Malone, and I am not okay.”
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Release date: March 3, 2015
Review copy handed to me by the publisher rep.
Content: There’s a whole lot of language, both mild and strong. There’s some creepy characters, including a serial rapist, but nothing is graphic. It’ll be in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Mary Iris Malone, Mim to everyone but her mother, is not happy. Her father, in a whirlwind, divorced her mother — who then disappeared — married the waitress at the local Denny’s, then relocated the three of them — Mim had no choice — to the middle of nowhere, Mississippi.

This does not sit well with Mim, who just wants her mother back, her old life back, her home back. So, when she’s called to the principal’s office and overhears her dad and Kathy talking about Mim’s mom with the principal, she snaps. She takes off from school, packs a backpack, grab’s Kathy’s coffee can stash of money, and heads to the Greyhound bus station. She’s headed back to Ohio this Labor Day weekend to see her mother, come hell or high water.

It’s not as easy as it sounds; there’s perils in them thar woods, and Mim is in for one of those life-changing adventures. There are some creepy people on the road, but she makes friends, both causal and the best-friend-types. And she discovers that maybe humanity — and Kathy — aren’t as bad as she’s always made them out to be.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Seriously. It started out slow and kind of awkward; Mim is a tough shell to crack and a prickly one at the beginning. But the more time I spent with her, the more I grew to love her. The more she revealed about her family and her life, the more I enjoyed spending time with her. And her adventures were fantastic. The people she met were fascinating and quirky, and I wanted to go on more adventures with them. I was almost sad when the book ended because I wouldn’t be spending more time with Mim and her friends.

I’m not sure this is a book for everyone. But for those who love good road trip adventures, and quirky characters, it’s a gem.

Vivian Apple at the End of the World

by Katie Coyle
First sentence: “There came a time when the American people began to forget God.”
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Release date: January 6, 2015
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There is teenage drinking and a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. There is also frequent off-screen violence. It’ll be in the Teen Section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

In this sort-of future, American has been taken over by the conservative, pseudo-Christian  Church of America. Except “taken over” is too strong. It’s not like America has become a theocracy. No, it’s just that the Church of America founder, Beaton Frick, has predicted the end of the world. The rapture will come on a night in March, and all the faithful will be taken up.

Even though a good majority of Americans follow the Book of Frick, as it came to be called, Vivian Apple doesn’t. Her parents do, though. They’re faithful believers. And so, when the “rapture” comes, they disappear, leaving Vivian behind.

I’m going to stop right here for a minute. I’ve read a bazillion dystopian/post-apocalyptic novels and this is the first time I’ve come across the rapture as the cause. (At least in mainstream fiction. Is this a theme in Christian fiction?) In fact, this is what compelled me to pick the book up. I’m often curious about the way religion is portrayed in mainstream fiction, and I thought this could be an interesting take on it. And it was, even if it wasn’t necessarily a kind one. Religion and believers come off badly in this book, as people who believe anything they hear without question and are willing to commit acts of violence for the sake of their belief. More than once, I cringed at the “religion” and marveled at what I saw as pot-shots against the religious right.

But I digress.

Vivian determines that it’s all a hoax and she sets out from her hometown in Pittsburg to the Church headquarters outside of San Francisco with her friend, Harp. She just wants to know answers. They pick up a boy along the way, Peter, who seems to be on their side. Little do they know what’s waiting for them.

There is some good in this book: I really liked the tentative romance that budded between Vivian and Peter. I liked that Harp was Indian. I liked the way Vivian grew and became more willing to make decision and to Act in her own life throughout the course of the book. And I can even forgive that the book didn’t end, but rather left me hanging with more questions than answers.

But this one will be a tough sell around here.

Graphic Novel Roundup – Raina Telgemeir Edition

Drama
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Content: There’s middle school drama, but other than that, it’s pretty tame. It’s in the teen graphic novel section of the bookstore, but only because it feels a bit mature for the middle grade section.

Callie is a theater nerd. She’s not one to be on stage — she can’t sing, and her acting needs some work — but she LOVES being backstage, helping create the sets. And so, for the middle school production (middle school!) of Moon over Mississippi, she’s been assigned to be in charge of the sets. That’s overwhelming enough, but Callie’s personal life has taken a turn for the confusing. She thought she was getting somewhere with her long-time crush, but he went back to his girlfriend (who’s not terribly nice). And then a set of twin brothers show up in her life to just confuse things more.

I really liked Telgemeir’s depiction of middle school (spot on!) and the theater program (again, spot on!). I loved Callie’s spunk and drive and her longing to feel accepted and belong. And even though it was Callie’s story, I thought that all her friends — from the twins to her best friend, Liz — were fully developed. (Though there were some stereotypes, the mean girl girlfriend being one.) My only real complaint was the inclusion that all guys who do theater (at least on-stage) are gay. It’s a stereotype, and although there are gay boys who do theater, not all theater boys (even on-stage) are gay. I know I’m nitpicking, but here in Kansas, that’s the kind of stereotype that really takes hold and so parents discourage boys from participating in the arts because of it. I would have appreciated one character, at least, who wasn’t part of that.

Even so, it was a lot of fun to read.

Smile
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Content: much the same as Drama; it’s got some themes that are a bit old for the younger elementary crowd, but there’s not much “objectionable”. It’s in the Teen Graphic Novel section, mostly because it seems to do better there.

Every once in a while, there’s an author (or in this case an author/artist) who gets the middle grade years so absolutely perfectly. The awkwardness, the challenges with friends, the wanting to be liked and not feeling liked.

Telgemeier is one of those people. It’s loosely based on her early teen years, and tells the story of how she lost her two front teeth in an accident and the dental work it took to make her smile what it is today. But it’s also the story of acceptance (inner and outer) and the things we’ll do and put up with so we don’t feel alone.

One thing I liked (well, I liked lots of things) was that the middle and high school Telgemeier drew was a diverse one. From her friends to the boys she liked, there were all shades of skin. And it wasn’t  this one’s the “black friend” or the “Asian friend”. They were all just friends — well, sort of; some of her friends, as A pointed out when she read it, were not very nice — and it wasn’t like Telgemeier was forcing a diverse world on things. It felt natural.

And, on top of that, she set it in 1989, which was a lot of fun to revisit.

Sisters
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Content: This one is “tamer” (not that the other two are wild) than the previous two books, and has a more universal appeal, being about sibling rivalry. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the store.

This is another memoir(ish) graphic novel, that takes place during Smile (though you don’t need to read that one to enjoy this one). It’s centered on Raina’s relationship with her younger sister, Amara. It has their backstory, their relationship as siblings as well as a road trip (yay road trip!) to visit cousins in Colorado for a family reunion.

It’s not an easy relationship, the one between Raina and Amara. There’s jealousy, age difference, interest differences, and (of course) just plain sibling rivalry. It’s the usual stuff: hitting, yelling, punching, name-calling. But an event on the road trip (I knew they were useful!), helps the sisters see that maybe it’s okay if they’re different. They can still get along.

I think, out of the three, this one was the least angsty, the least middle-school drama-y, and my personal favorite. Not only because I still remember fighting with my siblings, but because I’ve got all these girls around here who fight and squabble and don’t get along. Maybe, someday, they’ll figure it out. So, this one hit home in a way the other two didn’t.

A word on her art: it’s a bit cartoon-y (that’s the techincal term), but I thought it fit her story-telling style. It’s not terribly detailed, but it served it’s purpose, and the bright colors drew the eye in.

I handed all three of these off to the girls and they enjoyed them as much as I did. I’m glad we finally got around to reading her work!

Audiobook: An Abundance of Katherines

by John Green
read by Jeff Woodman
ages: 14+
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I picked this up on a whim,  partially because Laura (all my good ideas come from her!) suggested the YAckers read another John Green book, and partially because I’ve been trying to get this guy at work to read John Green, and I suggested this one. I figured it was due for a reread. Or listen in this case.

After going back and reading my initial review, I realize I don’t have much to add. It’s still a great mix of nerdiness, humor, and Deep Thoughts, though I think John (I can call him that, right? Being a Nerdfighter and all?) has gotten better at meshing the Deep Thoughts into his books  and they come off less as Deep Thoughts and more as, well, just thoughts. I didn’t remember the bit about the footnotes; I’m assuming Woodman read them, but they just came off more as asides, which I didn’t mind at all.  Speaking of Woodman, I thoroughly enjoyed his narration; he got the voices just right, and the girls — always an issue with me with male readers — weren’t simpery. Hassan was still my favorite character, hands down; it was nice to have a religious character — an Islamic one at that — who wasn’t preachy. Not to mention the fact that he was overweight but not obsessive about it.

I do think, in the end, that although this is John’s funniest book (all the fugs made me laugh), it’s not my favorite anymore. (I’ve remembered it that way for the longest time.) It’s charming, it’s sweet, it’s fun, but it lack the depth that he has in his other novels. Perhaps I should try pushing Paper Towns on the guy at work (he’s one of those literary fiction sorts). He might like that one better.

Audiobook: The True Meaning of Smekday

by Adam Rex
Read by Bahni Turpin
ages: 8+ (though my 4 1/2 year old loved it, too)
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I’ve enjoyed audiobooks in the past, but I think it’s a rare occasion when I listen to an audio book and then realize that I probably would have not liked the book as much if I had read it. (The last time that happened was with The Tale of Despereaux quite a few years ago.) This was one of those books. Although there were a few moments when I wished I had the book to browse through, Bahni Turpin did such an amazing job with the narration, that I know if I had read the book I would not have had as good of an experience with it.

But, the audiobook? I loved it. (As did all the girls, for the record. And they didn’t even hear the whole thing. We need to go on a nine hour roadtrip so they can all hear all of it. Amanda, you want some visitors??)

The story begins with a school assignment. Gratuity Tucci (“my friends call me Tip”) is assigned to write, for the National Time Capsule contest, an essay answering the question: What is the true meaning of Smekday. See, a year earlier, aliens called the Boov invaded Earth, which they renamed Smekland, on Christmas (henceforth known as Smekday). Gratuity has an interesting story: her mother was kidnapped by the Boov, and Gratuity with her cat (named Pig), set off to Florida (where all the humans were being relocated) to find her mom. Along the way, she falls in with a renegade Boov named J.Lo, who has made a bit of a mistake of his own. The long and short of it is that because of J.Lo’s mistake, and because of Gratuity’s determination, it ends up being their job to save the world.

It’s hilarious, especially as read by Turpin. The voices she picks for the Boov, were at first annoying, but by the end of the book became endearing. You could tell the personalities of the people from the voices she chose. And the book was so funny — I wish I had a copy here to pull out one liners — from the pokes at pop culture to the Boov massacring English, it had us all in stitches. But that’s not to say it’s all fun-and-games; Rex pairs the funny with a darker undertone: there’s strains of Manifest Destiny and imperialism going on. Aren’t the Boov doing to us what we did to the Native Americans, or what the British did to so many other countries? I’m sure my younger kids didn’t pick up on that, but I found it interesting. There’s also themes of prejudice and stereotyping, and going beyond first impressions to find the truth of a person, race or species. It’s fascinating.

I also discovered that listening to the story, for me at least, ramped up the suspense. I couldn’t flip to the back of the book to find out how it ended (confession: yes, I do that). I was forced to listen, to wonder where the HECK was he going with the story, and how in Smekland was it all going to turn out?

Highly, highly recommended.