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Posts Tagged ‘YA’

I read a couple of good books and listened to a third last week as part of the book bingo challenges I’m doing at the library where I work and my local public library. But, The Computer Scientist has planted the idea in my head that maybe it would be good for me to deliberately not finish either book bingo. I haven’t decided for sure, but I’m reading whatever I want this week whether it fits a bingo card or not.

I read a graphic novel from the offspring formerly known as Teen the Younger, Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley, who wrote the Scott Pilgrim series. It’s the story of Katie, a young woman who is a chef with a successful restaurant, about to open a new one. Things are not going well with the renovation (something I, in the midst of a kitchen remodel that hit a much more minor snag this week, can identify with), or with the rest of her life. A strange encounter in the night leaves her with mushrooms and a note that tells her she can write down a mistake, eat a mushroom, go to sleep, and wake up with a new life.

Like any good fairy tale there’s are a couple of “witch” figures — house spirits, in this case. The heroine has to make several mistakes with the magic and things have to get much worse before they get better. It is a very enjoyable read, with interesting and vivid art, that moves along quickly.

The other book I read, The Purple Swamp Hen is a short story collection by Penelope Lively, whose How It All Began I loved, as well as Dancing Fish and Ammonites.  I love short fiction and this collection did not disappoint. The title story is one of my favorites; it’s told from the point of view of the unusual bird depicted in a Pompeii fresco, who tells about the decadent and mostly unkind humans in villa before the Vesuvius eruption. Which is not as weird as it sounds. I enjoyed the whole book really, but another standout was “The Bridge,” which deals with a long married couple living separate lives mainly because they have parallel memories of a tragedy, which allows one to move on and the other to remain stuck with holding that memory at bay. Lively is a genius at depicting human nature in all its faulty glory in a few brief pages.

I listened to the audiobook version of  One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva. It’s the story of Alex Khederian, an Armenian American teen whose strict parents are both a source of pride and frustration. Alex has to go to summer school even though he passed all his classes, because his mom and dad want him to be in honors classes like his older brother. There, Alex gets to know Ethan, one of the charismatic older students from the rowdy crowd at school known as the drop outs. Alex admits they’re not much in the way of troublemakers given that he lives in a fairly affluent school district in New Jersey. But Ethan drags Alex on a forbidden adventure in the City and in no time they are inseparable and Alex is taking chances he never dreamed of.  It takes Alex’s best friend, Becky, to help him see how he really feels about Ethan. As in any good romantic comedy, a mishap causes a minor disaster — Alex’s parents ground him, possibly ending his relationship. Will love prevail? Will the Khederians trust Alex again? Will he make honors? A funny, sweet, but not overly treacly, love story that attempts (fairly successfully) to deal with multiple cultures: suburban New Jersey high school, gay New York, and Armenian American. I was hungry after listening as Barakiva includes mouth- watering details about the Khederians’ favorite meals.

I’ve moved on to a book I heard about on The Readers earlier in the summer, that I don’t think actually fits any book bingo squares. I can resist the urge to fill every square. Really.

 

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Turns out I have had a bit of time for reading, so here’s my take on two quick reads: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde.

Both of these books met my reading needs this week: they’re easy, entertaining books I could read between cooking, hanging out with my family, and catching up with friends and family by phone. That said, both were less appealing than the hype I’d heard.

I think The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry would have been a good novella, or even a long short story. At 336 pages, it plodded at times and there were too many passages that were similar to something I’d read a few pages earlier. If it hadn’t been a quick read, I may have put it down.

That said, I liked the story, which is about a recently retired brewery salesman in southwestern England who gets a letter from an old friend and colleague, Queenie, who is in hospice. The letter triggers all sorts of memories and Harold writes back. On his way to post the letter, an unlikely encounter leads to an even unlikelier decision: Harold will walk all the way to where his friend is, in northeast England. The audacity of this plot twist is enough to make it work.

Harold has experienced a psychological shock and it worked for me that he would do something so unusual and even a little nutty. He’s had enough of regrets and pain. He’s going to do something worthwhile.

As the rest of the book unfolds, I liked the way his wife, Maureen, begins to face the ways she and Harold have grown apart. I liked the revelations about their marriage, their only son, and the backstory about Queenie. I enjoyed how their neighbor, Rex, helps Maureen make her way back to Harold emotionally.

And the stages of Harold’s pilgrimage made sense as well, his doubts and low points, a few helpful people he meets, some skeptics, and the inevitable publicity and people trying to cash in.  I just felt the whole thing went on too long and could have been done more effectively in a shorter, tighter book.

I love Jasper Fforde. I’m a big fan of the Thursday Next books (especially the early ones) and Shades of Grey (no, not Fifty, just Shades of Grey), his Nursery Crime books. The Last Dragonslayer is a YA book, and it’s not as complex as some of Fforde’s other work, which is a shame. It’s still fairly imaginative in the trademark Fforde way — he is masterful at making magic seem a normal part of the familiar world. And he nails human nature in very clever, very funny ways in all of his books.

But for some reason this book didn’t really wow me. The villains seemed a little predictable, or at least a little too much like the villains in Thursday Next books. A promising character, Tiger Prawns, never really gets to shine. Jennifer Strange, the heroine, was uneven. The finale seemed a bit rushed. Again, the story was good, but the execution just didn’t do it for me.

So in both cases, I didn’t hate the book nor did I love it. Am I too full of turkey to have properly appreciated these books? Is it autumn ennui? I’m not sure.

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I mentioned when I wrote about The Art of Racing in the Rain that I talked books at a dinner party. This week I read another book recommended at that dinner, The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. In fact I stayed up ridiculously late finishing this book, because I could not put it down.

Yes, it’s sold and cataloged in libraries as a YA (young adult) novel, but don’t let that scare you off. This book is a philosophical gem. I love the characters. As in, I want to know them, I want my kids to know them. I wish I was like them.

Hazel and Augustus, teenagers with cancer, are the antidote to everything negative you’ve read about teenagers (Check out a very astute blog post by Jan Fortune on that very topic.) Yes, they play video games and obsess over the opposite sex but they also read and talk and think.

To wit: Hazel posts on an online wall for mourners that a person I won’t reveal here “did not die after a lengthy battle with cancer. __ died after a lengthy battle with human consciousness, a victim — as you will be — of the universe’s need to make and unmake all that is possible.” Wow. She also quotes poetry and looks for the hamartia in people — yes, I had to look it up too. College was a long time ago.

Augustus likes to have a cigarette in his mouth but does not light up — “It’s a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth but you do not give it the power to do its killing.” Not long after Hazel meets him he explains a breakthrough he had shooting “existentially fraught” free throws before he had his leg partially amputated. Gus looks at shadows of trees on a sidewalk and says, “Such a good metaphor. . . The negative image of things blown together and then blown apart.” Did I say wow already? Wow.

Both Hazel’s and Gus’s parents are fascinating characters in very different ways, as is the Dutch-American author of Hazel’s favorite book, who has become a raving alcoholic. And Hazel and Augustus’s close friend Isaac, who believes fervently in true love. Even these minor characters, and others like Hazel’s wise-ass school friend Kaitlyn and the cancer support group leader Patrick contribute to readers’ understanding of Hazel and Gus.

Despite the main characters having cancer, this is an incredibly romantic story, and also very funny. And achingly, searingly sad. You may reach the end and wonder why on earth we haven’t made defeating cancer our moon-shot. You may rage inside that even now there are probably people as sensitive, smart, empathetic, and promising as these kids who are going to die young.

But this isn’t entirely a book about cancer and death, it’s a book about how to live. How to be one’s self in a world of expectations. How to make a life (or a death) mean something even if it’s not glorious or heroic or exceptional. How to live in relation to Meaning and Truth and Love and all the Big Questions, and to in relation to each other as fellow human beings, even when we don’t connect perfectly. Or when we do.

I can’t really do this novel justice in a blog post. I wish more YA fiction was this good. Heck, I wish more adult fiction was this good. Thanks, Gene, for the recommendation. And thanks John Green. I’ll add the rest of your books to my to-read list.

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