The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik

by David Arnold
First sentence: “I’ll hold my breath and tell you what I mean: I first discovered the Fading Girl two months and two days ago, soon after summer began dripping its smugly sunny smile all over the place.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some teenage drinking, and lots of swearing, including f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The plot of this one is going to sound weird. And, to be fair, it’s not really the point of the book,  I think.

Noah Oakman is feeling a bit at sea heading into his senior year. He’s a great swimmer, but he doesn’t love it, and so he fakes a back injury to get out of spending his life in the pool. He’s thinking about college, sort of. Mostly he just wants to Think. And then, at a party he didn’t want to go to, he meets this kid Circuit, and heads to his house. It seems uneventful, but after that, everything’s slid sideways just a little bit. His best friend, Alan, used to be a huge DC fan, and now he’s a huge Marvel fan. His mother has a scar. Nothing life-shattering, but enough to throw Noah off. The only things that haven’t changed are his “strange fascinations” — little things, like the Fading Girl of the opening sentence, that have captured Noah’s interest. And perhaps by pursuing those and trying to make sense of them, he can make sense of his life.

I’m not going to give you much more than that, mostly because it’s the journey in this one that makes it such a good book. It’s populated with people that are fascinating and interesting and quirky and fun, and Noah’s journey is a strange and weird and wonderful one. I even thought that the ending explanation made sense, and made the book that much better.

I’ve liked Arnold’s books in the past, but I honestly think this is his best one so far.

Spontaneous

9780525429746by Aaron Starmer
First sentence: “When Katelyn Ogden blew up in third period pre-calc, the janitor probably figured he’d only have to scrub guts off one whiteboard this year.”
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Content: Um, well. You name it, it’s got it: sex, drugs, drinking, many many f-bombs. It’s all out there. And it’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, but it’s not for sensitive souls.

The senior class of  Covington High starts out thinking that this year will be like any other: go to school, apply for college, take the tests, graduate. But then, people start blowing up. Seriously: spontaneously combusting for no reason. They just… explode. First one, then four, and soon it’s an epidemic. It only affects the senior class, and soon they become pariahs in their town. Is it catching? What’s the reason? Who is going to live and who’s going to be the next one to blow up.

And Mara Carlyle is in the middle of it. She witnesses the first few deaths, and suddenly is swept away in the macabre fascination of it all. The FBI get involved and Mara’s there. Scientists come to try and figure out why, and Mara’s there.  She gets a boyfriend, trying to find love in all this (spoiler: he explodes). She tries to keep the school together. She and her best friend try to keep their friendship together. It’s all falling apart around her.

This is the WEIRDEST book I’ve ever read. And I read Grasshopper Jungle. In fact, that’s an apt comparison: it’s a lot like Smith’s book with its sex and drugs and just out-there plot. I think this book was trying to explore what happens to a group when everything (literally) blows up around them. Most authors go for dystopian (or giant, man-eating grasshoppers), but Starmer picked the weirdness of people blowing up. And, for a long time, it worked. As it was going along, people were trying to figure out they why behind it, so there was a bit of a mystery. Is it DNA? Is it government conspiracy? Is it bad drugs? It was foul and it was weird, but it wasn’t really bad. Until it made a sharp left (after the boyfriend exploded) and became bitter and hopeless. The last quarter of the book just wasn’t, well, good. (At least for me.) I wanted some sort of answer, some sort of reason, some sort of solution, but it all fell apart in hopeless bitterness. At least with Grasshopper Jungle, there was a hope that things would work out in the future. But, with this, it was just passive acceptance, a knowledge that every. single. person. in the senior class was doomed to die. And it was depressing, frankly.

And weird. Definitely very, very weird.

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.

The Witches

witchesby Roald Dahl
First sentence: “In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks.”
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Content: It’s not as scary as I thought it would be, and surprisingly simple for the size. Heads up, though: grandma smokes a cigar. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

So, I remember reading this one at some point, and I had a violently negative reaction to it. I HATED it. So, I was a bit wary going in this time. But, since I picked this for the Roald Dahl book club, I needed a re-read going in.

And it’s…. weird. I was asked if it was “good”, and I said “It’s weird.” “Does that mean it’s bad? ” Nope. Just weird.

The basic plot? There are witches out there, and they look like us. Except they always wear gloves, and a wig (to cover their bald heads) and the have no toes. They hate children and make them disappear. They are, at all costs, to be avoided. So when our narrator (whose childhood sounds suspiciously like Dahl’s), accidentally ends up in a ballroom full of witches, he’s (understandably) terrified. Especially after he hears their master plan for the children of England: make a time-release mouse potion, put it in candy, and voila! No more children. They’ll all be mice.

Except our narrator doesn’t make it out in one piece: he’s caught and turned into a mouse. But, he can talk and he can still think like himself so he goes and convinces his grandma that he’s still her grandson. And informs her of the Grand Plan. Which they, unbelievably, thwart. But our narrator remains a mouse, which is just fine with him because then he won’t outlive his grandma.

Weird.

There are the usual Dahl themes: adults hating kids, and good kids being bullied (by the witches). But it really feels different from the other ones I’ve read. Matilda is darker, and Charlie is more didactic. I’m not quite sure what The Witches is other than… weird.  Was it supposed to scare kids? Was it supposed to just be amusing? (It wasn’t.)

This one’s going to be an interesting discussion at book group.