Imperfect Little Parents

Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson. Ecco, 2017. 9780062450340. 352 pp.

Gene: I read Wilson’s The Family Fang and I loved it. It’s also about an unusual family.
Sarah: I hadn’t heard of it. Then I mentioned this book to Tom and he said they’d made a movie out of The Family Fang.
G: No!
S: It came out in 2016. It has Jason Bateman in it.
G: (Adding it to his watchlist) It’s about a family that does public performance art pieces that people don’t know are performance art, some of which involve their kids. Very funny. You should read it. And that made me want to read this, not even knowing what it was about.
S: I wanted to introduce this by saying that when I was in elementary school and we had reading time in our class, we had to read stories from a big stupid textbook. It had stories and parts of books, but not the good parts. And one of the comprehension questions was always: “Why do you think the author wrote this story?” We were clueless kids. “To get paid!” I think it was an easy way to ask us about the theme of a book. (Now, as an adult, I’m like, it wasn’t to get paid.)
That was on my mind when I was reading this because I wasn’t sure what the theme was until I was most of the way through. I liked it, but I wasn’t sure what it was about.
G: There were moments in the middle where I was really enjoying it and I didn’t feel like there was a huge conflict. I just liked Izzy so much.
S: So, the premise.
Continue reading “Imperfect Little Parents”

Last But Not You Know

The Penderwicks At Last by Jeanne Birdsall. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018. 9780385755665. 304pp.

When I’m not reading comics, I favor dark mysteries, science fiction on an epic scale, and heroic fantasy so violent that I can’t recommend it to many. And when I’m looking for books that meet these tastes, I seek out recommendations from folks who read widely in these genres. (“I read 300 fantasy novels a year and this was the best.”) But when I’m looking for books outside them, I want to find the books people read kind of in spite of how they can be easily described. (“I don’t like literary fiction, but I couldn’t put this down.”)

Well, I don’t read many kids chapter books, or books that paint a rosy picture of family life and childhood. But this is one of those, and it’s the book I most anticipated reading this year. It’s  the fifth book in the Penderwicks series, so minor spoilers ahead. Take it from an atypical recommender — start at the beginning and don’t stop until you’ve read them all.

This one focuses on Lydia, the youngest Penderwick sister. Her oldest sister Rosalind is getting married, and decides to have the ceremony at Arundel, the setting for the first book (where the four original Penderwick girls met now honorary Penderwick Jeffrey, who lived there with his mother, Mrs. Tifton, and her horrid then current husband). (Sorry for the long sentence. There’s just so much context here.) Lydia heads to Arundel early with Batty (now a young adult, still a singer), to start cleaning the place, and soon Jane (waitressing while working on her books) arrives to start making the dresses. It’s a great excuse to get everyone together, and to see them through young Lydia’s eyes as she explores Arundel (and the stories she’s heard about it) with her new friend, Alice. There’s lots in here about dealing with the pair’s annoying beloved older brothers, plus Mrs. Tifton is around, still intimidating and unpleasant to kids, still worried that her beloved Jeffrey (who now owns Arundel) is going to get sucked into marrying one of the Penderwicks.

This book contains more amazing dogs than have ever existed in my cat-centric world, plus one cool sheep. Give it to everyone you know, even the cat people.

Got milk?

Confessions: a novel by Kanae Minato. Translated by Stephen Snyder. Mullholland Books (Little, Brown), 2014. 9780316200929. 234pp.

I’m going to try (and fail) to pitch this Japanese novel as well as Wes at Third Place Books pitched it to me.

It opens with a middle school teacher, Yuko Moriguchi, talking to her students. Her daughter, Manami, drowned in the school’s pool during a staff meeting, devastating her and the girl’s father. But it was not an accident. Her daughter was killed by two students, and the teacher knows exactly who they are. She talks about them in detail, and though she doesn’t use their names everyone listening can easily identify them. And then Moriguchi explains her revenge — she’s poisoning their milk with HIV+ blood.

That’s dark enough already, but it gets darker. The next four chapters, each narrated by a different character connected to Manami’s murder, explore the murderers’ lives before and after the killing, and show what happens because of their actions and Moriguchi’s revenge. It’s all wonderfully horrific. (I hear there’s a movie. I can’t wait to see it.)

Gene & Sarah

George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl. Touchstone, 2017. 9781501162893. 288 pp.

Gene: This is George and Lizzy by Nancy Pearl.
Sarah: Who we’ve both met and both like.
G: Who I would say is a buddy of mine.
S: I own her action figure and the T-shirt that you made of her.
G: She’s awesome. I ran into her husband at my local library in September — they live close to me — when Nancy was on her book launch tour. He teaches a meditation class I need to take.
S: I feel like the few things I know about her I noticed reflected in the book, and there are probably going to be more, and the meditation class is one of them.
G: Oh my god, I didn’t think about that. So, give me your pitch for this.
S: Lizzie, when she was in high school, well her friend came up with this idea that she thought was great…her friend dropped out because this idea was insane but Lizzie did it anyway.
G: What was the idea?
S: To sleep with every member of the high school football team. Well, not every member, but the starters. And they were going to divide the starters between them, which was 11 boys each, and then they’d flip for the last one…
G: The kicker.
S: …but because her friend dropped out Lizzie decided she would do all the starters. And it’s never totally clear why she does this except she’s super pissed off at her parents and maybe kind of hopes this will shock them into caring about her.
Continue reading “Gene & Sarah”

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, illustrations by Brendan Shusterman. HarperCollins, 2015. 9780061134111.

As a book blogger, I hope I can bring you some value in my writing: helping you find a hidden gem or highlighting the best new stuff. So it feels weird to write about a book you probably already know is really good. The book, published three years ago, is widely-acclaimed, by a well-loved YA author, and won the National Book Award. It’s not new and it’s not hidden, but it is a gem. Challenger Deep ended up on my phone when I was taking screenshots of my library’s eBook platform for a presentation and needed to borrow a book. Before I knew it I was completely sucked in.

The chapters are short and propel you along quickly through two parallel stories. In one, fifteen-year-old Caden is beginning to suspect something might be wrong, but he can’t articulate what or why to his family. Strange ideas keep nagging at him, he feels connected in some profound way to everyone and everything, and he’s afraid that a kid at school wants to kill him. These thoughts become more persistent, the illusions and emotions become more heightened, and he develops physical symptoms: his artwork becomes abstract and uncontrolled (the art in the book is drawn by the author’s son, who is the inspiration for the book), he walks for hours and hours every day, and he never wants to eat. In the other story Caden is aboard a pirate ship crewed by teens with similar problems. Reality warps from moment to moment and analogy, metaphor, and even puns become real as the ship heads for the depths of the Marianas Trench.

The spoiler/not spoiler (the information is on the book jacket and in every review) is that Caden is struggling through the onset of schizophrenia. The chapters on the ship explore his experience through metaphor and may be the reality that Caden is living at his lowest points. The chapters set in real life show Caden’s perspective as he copes as best he can while his friends and family are frightened and bewildered by the changes in his behavior. The chapters begin to overlap as Caden responds to treatment, and the “real life” chapters show him regaining his perspective and sense of humor. My favorite character was the ship’s figurehead/fellow patient who forms a deep connection with Caden and gives him advice about his future. As Caden himself points out, people’s experiences with schizophrenia and its treatment are very individual: this is only one story and can only really show one experience. But I think it’s invaluable for humanizing this experience.

8-Bit Nostalgia

Impossible Fortress: A Novel by Jason Rekulak. Simon & Schuster, 2017. 9781501144417.

Sarah: So do you find yourself wondering if a book is intended to be an adult or teen book and then judging it differently?
Gene: Yeah.
S: I think I would have been harsher to this book if it had been a teen book.
G: Isn’t it a teen book?
S: It is not a teen book.
G: I read it like it was a teen book.
S: I read it as an adult book, so I was a little bit more forgiving of the fact that it meandered.
G: But it’s clearly a teen novel. It just relies so heavily on nostalgia that you can’t put it on the teen shelf. It’s much more for us.
Continue reading “8-Bit Nostalgia”

Mom Rom Com

Colonial Madness by Jo Whittemore. Aladdin, 2015. 9781481405089. Also published as Me & Mom vs. The World.

When I booktalk to middle school classrooms, I like to bring at least one squeaky-clean book for the kids who need one. (And as a palate-cleanser for all of the books about skeletons and bizarre animals that I bring.) Colonial Madness was a perfect fit. The plot is light and cute: an eccentric aunt has decided that her huge historic house will go to the relative who can best live like a colonial settler in an heir-on-heir reality-show-style competition. Throw in a cute boy (the son of the house’s caretakers) and you’ve got a screwball family romantic comedy. Tori and her mom, competing as a team to save her mom’s dress shop, have a warm and close relationship, even if mom is often silly and impractical. How so? She and Tori once made a massive ice cream sundae in the bathtub, played hide and seek in a graveyard, and decided to see how many stuffed animals they could velcro to their bodies. Tori loves her mom a lot, but still gets mad at her and hurts her feelings. And it’s all presented in a way that I think would be very reassuring to a kid, especially to one who doesn’t want to read anything mom might think is inappropriate.