“Why We Broke Up”

February 27, 2012 at 12:00 am | Posted in Young Adult Fiction | 3 Comments

I didn’t realize, when I picked up “Why We Broke Up,” that the author was the former Lemony Snicket. It seems relevant. Now we know that Daniel Handler can write anything. If you are already a fan of his earlier work, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that you enjoy this offering even more.

This book succeeds in conjuring the feelings of young love: the torment, sure, but also the euphoria and the mystical attraction that can arise between people of different worlds. I would have found it hard to write on this topic with anything other than cynicism. Handler makes it fresh again.

The other major treat in this book is that it is lavishly illustrated in full color by Maira Kalman. Personally, I can never get enough of her work. Her style suits the proclivities of Min Green to a T.

This Week

November 6, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Posted in Fiction, History, Nonfiction, Young Adult Fiction | 3 Comments

A quick synopsis of some super books I read this week (and how I found out about them):

Fat Vampire – Adam Rex.  One of the best YA books I’ve read in some time.  A screamingly funny satire of vampire novels with some great characters.  This deserves to be a series (TV or print) or at least a movie.  We read it aloud, I had a terrible time trying to do half a dozen different accents, and it was one of our best Family Reading Hour picks ever. (Amazon Book of the Month)

Skippy Dies – reviewed below, adored, definitely helped keep my Booker momentum going. (Booker long list)

The False Friend – Myla Goldberg.  No, I haven’t read Bee Season yet, though it’s on my shelf and I know I’m going to love it.  The False Friend was a gripping account of suppressed childhood memories, family loyalty, and adult romance.  For such a slender book it packed a powerful punch.  This would be a great book club pick. (Indiespensable)

I Curse the River of Time – Per Petterson.  I fell in love with Out Stealing Horses and had to grab this.  It’s still settling in my system.  The protagonist is a working-class man who turns down a chance to go to college to be true to his Communist ideals, then stumbles his way to a rapprochement with his dying mother.  It’s sad but honest.  I might benefit from a rereading. (Indiespensable)

Trespass – Rose Tremain. This author won the Orange Prize for a previous book.  Trespass is a story of dysfunctional families, class conflict, crime, antiques, real estate, and lesbian sex.  In other words, it’s a great airplane read, about eight notches above The Slap but still bloody and kinky.  It’s also very short if you have a rainy night that needs dealing with.  (Booker long list)

Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse – James Swanson. This is history the way it ought to be written – approachable, level-headed, and chock-a-block with research and photos.  I learned things about Civil War history that I never expected to, and got a bit of a crush on the marriage of Jefferson and Varina Davis.  Plus I got to see a picture of a pillow with Lincoln’s blood on it.  (Actually, come to think of it, I could have done without that part).  (Amazon Best of the Month)

Now I’m tackling Long for This World by Sonya Chung for the third time.  It’s impossible for me to believe a book under 300 pages can have so much in it.

“Battle Royale” the Movie

April 27, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Posted in Science Fiction, Uncategorized, Young Adult Fiction | 1 Comment

Battle Royale, while released in Japan in 2001, evidently was not available in the US for some time.  I’m happy to report that you can now get it on Netflix, along with… a sequel!  We watched it (the first one) last night and I thought I’d share a little.

The production values were quite high and better than I’d expected.  The film is in Japanese with an option for English subtitles.  There are a couple of spots in which the subtitle extends off both edges of the screen, and also a couple of spots when we had to go back because they flashed past too fast, but otherwise they’re in white with black outline and easy to see.  There is one scene at the very end that appears to have been translated by a different person, or perhaps not edited, because it doesn’t make as much sense.

The plot follows the book closely, with a few subtle changes and a slightly different ending.  Man, is it graphic!  It doesn’t take long before the blood starts flying.  Every time a character is killed off, the score is flashed on screen, in kanji right above the subtitles.  The movie is fast-paced, and there are a couple of scenes that wouldn’t make much sense without a familiarity with the book.

We found the book to be really funny, in a dark sort of way.  The movie had little of this humorous vein.  I found it more affecting – in the beginning schoolhouse scene, I actually found myself tearing up!

The book and movie versions of Battle Royale, while more similar than one might have expected, are two different beasts.  If you loved one you’ll probably love the other.  It helps to have a solid background in slasher films, though.

“Going Bovine”

April 8, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Posted in Fiction, Young Adult Fiction | 5 Comments

Our latest Family Reading Hour book, Going Bovine by Libba Bray, was  one of our best choices ever.  I’m pleased to tell you that you don’t have to have a teenager at home to give you an excuse to read it, either.

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Sweetie Junior remarked early on that “that’s exactly like my high school.”  My man Rocket Scientist, who occasionally has trouble tolerating books that appeal to a 15-year-old girl, instead kept shushing conversational tangents so we could get back to the story.  I had to do all the reading because there are frequent F-bombs (which SJ simply will not read aloud), and there turned out to be a couple of “adult scenes” that would have had her digging her own grave out of embarrassment.  Reading aloud to your family is of an entirely different order than reading to yourself.

This is a really plot-based book.  I’ll describe it as a silly yet touching fantasy road trip that should appeal to everyone who liked Pee Wee’s Great Adventure.

“Battle Royale”

January 11, 2010 at 4:10 pm | Posted in Young Adult Fiction | 2 Comments

Reading with kids is fraught with peril – especially when the book in question is Battle Royale by Koushun Takami.  In what context is it appropriate to expose our kids to violence in media?  Do we want them to read what they like, or like what we read?

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We have Family Reading Hour during alternate weeks, except when the holidays cause the schedule to be shuffled around.  We happened to have our little bunny for two weeks in a row, including a vacation week, allowing us to get through this 600 page book without a break in between.  First I’m going to talk about what it was like for us to read it, and then I’m going to go into a spoiler-filled review.

We don’t watch TV at our house, and neither does The Mom, so media are limited to YouTube, manga, video games (at Mom’s), and the rare DVD (seemingly Ella Enchanted over and over again).  In that case, we’re generally opposed to anything we find obnoxious.  Is it weird that we find extreme violence less awkward for family entertainment than love scenes?

Regardless, Sweetie Junior’s response to Battle Royale, after the first night of reading, was: “This book is awesome!”  We had already read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire together last year.  I noticed early on that SJ found this book funny, while the Suzanne Collins was not.  She has a strong interest in reading the manga and seeing the film version of the book.  (You’ll often find that kids want the full catalogue relating to whatever entertaining thing they’ve discovered – the whole series and all its accessories, in every format available).

This book would probably not be enjoyable for anyone who is not already a horror fan or who is squeamish about graphic violence.  If you’re not a horror fan, there are elements intrinsic to the genre that are helpful to understand.  First, horror tends to be heavy on the morals.  Any character who exhibits hubris, stupidity, lust, greed, vanity, or other vices is guaranteed to snuff it – and this is usually at least somewhat funny.  Second, there is always going to be an unstoppable dark force that just keeps coming at you, even past the point of credulity.  Horror is definitely not supposed to be believable!  If it’s a scary story and it seems completely plausible, it probably falls under suspense or drama.  Horror tends to have elements of fantasy, dark comedy, and occasionally steamy romance.

There’s a meditation common to Buddhism, yoga, and medieval mysticism in which you are supposed to imagine yourself as a decomposing corpse.  It sounds pretty icky at first.  The purpose, though, is to help us remember that we will die one day – sorry, no exceptions.  This has the twin effect of helping put our trivial quotidian concerns in perspective and helping us remember to appreciate life as much as we can while we’re still here.  There is nothing quite like reading a really gruesome scene in a horror novel and telling yourself, “It’s just a story!” to reinforce how comfortable our own life is in comparison.  Kids, who have relatively less experience with the real horrors of adult life, tend to excel at separating fiction from reality, which is why they are able to get so much enjoyment out of splashing gore and vicarious weaponry.  There’s also a strong undercurrent of “the beast within” that resonates with teenagers as they watch their bodies, friends, and moods metamorphose in front of their very eyes.

Now, for the spoilers.  This is aimed partly at my online book group, whose discussion I missed due to a virus attack – speaking of real-life horror.  First off, it was interesting reading with my husband, who is an engineer and has been firing guns since the age of, wait for it, three.  There were a couple of scenes where he had to interrupt, saying a particular gun didn’t load that way or some other technical observation.  He was incensed about the bulletproof vest; first of all, people can still be killed while wearing them, and would definitely be incapacitated – unconscious and/or very badly hurt.  Second, a gun pressed against something such that the barrel is blocked won’t fire right.  He also wanted to say that there was no way a bunch of teenagers who had never fired a gun would be able to hit their targets so consistently – he says it would be more likely for them to be 90 degrees  off or more, no matter what kind of instruction manual they had.  He wasn’t too impressed that they were supposedly able to drive with one hand and shoot accurately with the other, either, and he thought the idea of being able to dodge bullets in a vehicle was absurd.  I had to argue this book against the various Die Hard movies, and remind him that action scenes aren’t supposed to be believable.  Especially car chases.  Hello, the entire premise is “absurd” from the get-go but it still makes for a rollicking read.

Sweetie Junior found the book a laugh riot.  The part that set her off in particular was that all the girls had a crush on Shuya.  When Yukie made her confession, SJ smacked herself in the face with a pillow and shook her head back and forth.  She laughed over all the inappropriate weapons, especially the fork, and was completely in hysterics over the Ahura Mazda-inspired fantasy sword sequence.

We speculated a lot throughout the book over where we thought the plot was going and how it was going to end.  We figured for quite a while that Kazuo was a cyborg.  Early on, my man Rocket Scientist tried to add the movie to his Netflix queue, and of course the first line of the synopsis has a major planet-killing spoiler.  Rotten, huh?  We were sure Kazuo and Mitsuko were going to have an epic battle at the end, so it was a surprise how that went down.  There was a lot of speculation about Hiroki’s search for Kotohiki, and they settled on him being her long-lost brother.

We enjoy reading together as a family, and it’s given us a lot of inside jokes.  We particularly enjoy picking apart technical issues, trying to figure out whether certain things make sense or what we would have done if we were characters in the book.  Okay, it can be disturbing when what’s under consideration is what to do when you’re faced with being forced to kill a bunch of people.  It does still give us an opportunity to build vocabulary and talk over a number of topics including ethics, geography, linguistics, comparative culture and religion, sociology, history, and… ordnance.

On Reading YA – By a YA

November 24, 2009 at 2:20 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Young Adult Fiction | 4 Comments

15-year-old Sweetie Junior weighs in:

I believe that you can read young adult books to a certain point.  Always reading them will get you nowhere but if you like it go ahead.  I read young adult books but I also read things that are meant for adults.  So if you like it go ahead but don’t get angry at peoples opinion.

Incidentally, she reads 2-4 manga a week, and she’s been working on Pride and Prejudice for the last couple of months.

On Reading YA

November 17, 2009 at 9:13 am | Posted in Book Blather, Young Adult Fiction | 27 Comments

I read young adult books.  Granted, I live with a young adult, and we read together, but I don’t need that excuse.  Young adult books at their best can be better than their adult counterparts:  they cover bigger issues, have more interesting plot lines and better drawn characters, and display more engaging writing styles.  You’re also more likely to find someone to discuss them with.

That being said, young adult books are for young adults.  Assume you want to read something momentous.  The Book Thief is a truly great book about the Holocaust.  Arguably, Sophie’s Choice is a better book about the Holocaust.  The Book Thief has a higher page count, but it’s a much faster read.  The Kindly Ones will take you as long as reading both the other two put together, and when I say that I include the time you’ll spend thinking about it afterward.  Just because you’re reading a YA book with “merit” does not mean it has equal merit to the greatest, most enduring classics of literary fiction.

On the other hand, let’s say you like “fluff.”  I’ll define fluff as something fast, fun, and entertaining – like chick lit.  There’s nothing wrong with this; indeed, “fluff” is probably what keeps the publishing industry in operation, and it certainly subsidizes more serious works.  Don’t feel apologetic about it – I don’t.  But don’t gloat about how much you read, either.  Reading fluff is just like doing Sudoku:  it provides a certain amount of mental exercise, but not the maximum, and in the end, what do you have to show for it?

While we’re at it, let’s discuss page count, too.  Make two stacks.  In one you’re going to put The Recognitions, The Kindly Ones, and Gravity’s Rainbow.  In the other you’re going to put, I dunno, anything by Meg Cabot or your favorite YA author.  Now, start flipping them open.  Notice how dense the text is in the first stack?  I’m not going to make you get out a ruler or start doing word count or anything.  Let’s just say that The Princess Diaries is 206 kb, or .8 kb per page, and The Kindly Ones is 951k, or .95 kb per page (a rate that would shrink TPD from 256 to only 196 pages, or, conversely, swell TKO from 992 to 1170).  It adds up.  YA books aren’t equivalent in content, and they aren’t equivalent in word count, either.  We’ll leave complexity and vocabulary out of the discussion for the time being.  Again, if you’re reading a lot of YA, don’t gloat, because you’re not reading as much as you think you are.

The classics are classics for a reason.  If you feel boredom or distaste when reading a difficult book, like many people do, don’t give up.  Chances are you’ll get more out of it with a little more time and perspective.  Frankly, I read a lot of comments about authors “failing” to accomplish something when it’s clear to me the reader “failed” to get the point.  Don’t give up.  Work harder to build your chops and the rewards will come.  Reading isn’t just about personal taste; it’s also about effort, and YA simply doesn’t take as much effort.  Give credit where it’s due.

I’m no snob (contrary to popular belief); I read children’s books and graphic novels, popular nonfiction, and – gasp! – self-help books.  I’ll read absolutely anything, and I think you should too.  This does not, however, distract from my main focus, which is to seek out the finest, highest caliber literature the world has to offer.  Make sure you’re not displacing the epic, the grand, the heavy, the challenging, the poetic while you’re reading the entertaining.  Books are more than a pleasant, idle pastime – at their best they should shake the ground under your feet, blast open your third eye with one epiphany after another, and force you to reevaluate the world and your place in it.  Accept no substitutes.

Postscript:  Evidently this post has pushed a lot of people’s buttons, as it’s gotten more hits in one day than almost anything I’ve ever written.  If you read it and your temper is flaring, take a breath and realize I haven’t met you and it isn’t personal.  It’s rhetoric, people.  If the shoe fits, it might be because it’s a common shoe size.

PPS:  Aaaaand here is the opinion of my teen stepdaughter.

Family Reading Hour: “Feed”

November 16, 2009 at 4:43 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Fiction, Young Adult Fiction | 2 Comments

What are those things that gang aft agley?  That’s right, “the best laid plans of mice and men!”  You’d think my ambitious plan to read with my new family for at least an hour a night would fall through, wouldn’t you?  Well, ha!  Because it’s been sixth months now and we’re still going strong.  Books like M. T. Anderson’s 2002 YA novel Feed are a large part of the reason.

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Feed is a spot-on satire of our materialistic, media-obsessed culture.  It’s amazing how prescient Anderson was, considering that seven years ago texting and Twitter were not the phenomena they are now.  Satire can wear a bit thin, but this book has an emotional depth and a thoughtful message that make it a truly rewarding read.

Now for our FRH experience.  We found this book howlingly funny.  There would be a couple of scenes a night when we were all laughing so hard we had to take a break.  I did the protagonist’s voice in a sort of Bill and Ted surfer accent, and we were just falling over dying.  We’ve been going around calling each other “Unit!”  This was also the first book in which we were interested in and responded to the discussion questions.

Okay, now I have to share a reality moment.  Noelie was walking around on the couch, as she likes to do: she calls her own name over and over when she wants to be picked up.  She got excited in a tense moment of the plot and started flapping her wings really hard.  Suddenly she slid off the couch and landed on Spike the Reading Assistance Dog.  She was scrabbling around on his side with her scratchy talons, still madly flapping, until she slid off into the dog bed.  She stood there, looked up at his inquisitive snout, touched him on the nose with that big black beak, and made a big smooch sound.  It went so well that now she keeps peering down into the dog bed, like she’s trying to figure out how to get back in.  Most likely, she is.

Stepmother Shower

April 30, 2009 at 4:34 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Young Adult Fiction | 2 Comments

I have an acquaintance who is having her fifth baby shower.  Once upon a time, showers were for the first baby, with the assumption that the baby things would be passed down.  Now it’s more of a reason to have a party.  This is the kind of party for which there is no bachelorette equivalent.  What’s more, nobody ever has a shower for new stepmothers.

I was thinking of this and wondering what sorts of gifts would be appropriate.  It would depend on what kind of stepmother and what the guests thought about the children.  An evil stepmother would naturally need a pointy black hat, a broom, a black cat,  a large cauldron, and a magic mirror.  No bread products could be served in case the children managed to make a trail after they were abandoned in the woods.  Poisoned apples, however, would be allowed.

On the other hand, if the children were wicked, the new stepmother would need a little moral support.  A large bottle of aspirin (or perhaps bourbon) (or Valium) would be essential.  Also bubble bath.  A lie detector and a ping pong paddle labeled “Attitude Adjuster.”  (My childhood babysitter had one of these hung on the kitchen wall near the fridge).

Seriously, in the nature of a shower, I am hoping I can drum up some Young Adult book recommendations.  I want to start off on the right foot with family reading time, and what I’m looking for are some really rip-roaring, suspenseful, exciting, or dramatic books we can read together.  The young lady in question is really embarrassed by swearing, so language alerts would be really helpful.  Any ideas would be gratefully appreciated.

“The Hunger Games”

February 11, 2009 at 7:12 pm | Posted in Fiction, Young Adult Fiction | 3 Comments

Wow!

I ate up The Hunger Games with a big spoon.  It was so exciting, I about lost my mind.  I actually considered taking a vacation day from work so I could finish it sooner.  Then I wound up staying up until 1:30 AM on Friday night to finish it.  Now, I read a lot, but I almost never get this wrapped up in a book.

Trish at Hey Lady!  Whatcha Readin’? had the book on her hold list at the library.  I finished soon enough that I was able to lend my copy to her before I had to turn it in.  She just came running in squealing about it, and she’s only about 80 pages in!  I think we can expect a similar glowing review from her soon.

I’m going to buy this for Sweetie Junior the next time we go on a road trip.  It’s better to wait a bit, because the sequel isn’t coming out until September and it’s just cruel to get her hooked and then make her wait.  Thanks, Suzanne Collins.  The suspense is killing me!

The Hunger Games is a young adult book.  It’s pretty dark, and there is plenty of violence.  But the language would pass Sweetie Junior’s blushing radar.  Heartily recommended.

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