Category Archives: fiction

When superlatives are not enough…

the-philosophers-flight-9781476778150_lgThis book.  This book.  This book.

I don’t even know where to begin.  I brought The Philosopher’s Flight  home thinking my son might like it, because it’s kind of alternative history, kind of fantasy (not usually his thing, but it will work if it’s on the edge of sci-fi), and kind of different.  He likes that.  A day later, he announced that he loved it and that I needed to read it, too.  He’s a teenager, so if he likes something enough to suggest it to me, I try to read it and soon.  It’s really an honor when someone tells you about a book they love, and when it’s your teenager — who probably thinks you’re an idiot about half the time and doesn’t detach from the devices as often as you’d like — it’s worth taking the time to make some kind of connection, right?

The Philosopher’s Flight is a coming-of-age story set in an alternative early twentieth century.  Women empirical philosophers dominate human flight and sigilry—which is not exactly like signaling or casting spells, but can be used for transporting humans, creating smoke shields and other things, healing and more.  Robert has grown up with a mother and sisters who can do all of this, and he wants to fight for his dream of becoming a rescue and evacuation specialist.  There are all kinds of other things going on – a group of zealots who hate the women who do this, factional fighting within the women philosophers, war, love.  You know.  All the usual stuff.

I can’t shut up about this book.  I’ve told at least ten people about it already, including a few who I know don’t like reading things outside of their usual very limited boxes.  Oh well.  This is one to take a chance on, because it is just SO fun.  I can’t be friends with you anymore if you hate it.  Well, actually, I can.  But I’d be bummed you didn’t like it, because it’s just THAT good.

Also, the author is from our neighboring state of Wisconsin–Wauwatosa to be exact.  Having spent a delightful afternoon at a ‘Tosa city pool/biergarten some summers ago, I have an extra fondness for it, and I’ll be looking for the next one, Tom Miller.  Don’t make us wait too long.

The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller

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Intensity can be illuminating

I’m sure Dr. K doesn’t remember this, some thirty years on, but while discussing personal essays in class one day, he talked about the intensity of living and how when you are young, you feel things so powerfully that the feelings consume you in a way that they never will again.  I remember thinking that I hoped I never lost that intensity about life and what was important to me, but, of course, I did, since to operate in the adult world successfully, you kind of have to calm down, plow through, and let things go sometimes.  And thank goodness, really, because living with that level of feeling is exhausting if you try to do it all the time.  Most of us just can’t maintain that.

The main characters in Turtles All the Way Down and The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily are dealing with that intensity, plus the added challenges of being on the spectrum, ADD or OCD.  The anxiety is high here, made worse by the feeling that so much is new and uncharted and frightening, even though the characters know themselves and their challenges exceedingly well.  In fact, what is so illuminating and wonderful (although difficult at times) is how clearly their feelings and thoughts speak out to us readers in ways we can relate to and empathize with, even if we are not on the spectrum, ADD or OCD ourselves.

Love Letters struck me as a sweeter young love story, partly because the ending ties the characters together in a more positive way, but both are windows into the paths we walk when we are young, the opportunities we take and leave behind, and the mistakes we make while we are trying to move forward.

The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily by Laura Creedle

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

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A grim beginning, some art, some angels, a car chase or two…

 

theroadtoeveraftercover2Sometimes I don’t know why I pick books up.  Maybe I saw something about it online?  Maybe a co-worker added it my stack thinking I’d like it?  Maybe someone, somewhere mentioned it?  Maybe I liked the cover?

Sometimes books just call out to you, I guess.  The cover reminds me a bit of Moon Over Manifest, an excellent book by Clare Vanderpool which won the Newbery some years ago, although The Road to Ever After has a boy facing away and headed down a road with a dog, while Moon has a girl coming towards you on a train track.  It doesn’t suggest a grim dystopian beginning, the magic of a young artist, or anything resembling a walk with Death, but it drew me in, so let’s see where it goes, right?

It’s a quirky kind of a book, but a wonderful one.  Davy David, the unacknowledged angel artist of brooms and twigs, is on his own in a grim sort of town with some unpleasant and unkind adults.  The library, his sanctuary, is going to be closed, and he’s at loose ends until Miss Flint announces that she needs to drive him somewhere – he doesn’t know how to drive – so that she can die.  She might look old and feeble, but she’s smart and has enough of a spark to lead him on a minor crime spree on the way to the shore and her planned death.

It’s not your average middle grade read, but that might just be the reason to pick it up.

The Road to Ever After by Moira Young with illustrations by Hannah George

 

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Bears and libraries and funny little men

snow roseRe-imagining fairy tales can be a tricky business.  Some authors go for the updated, girl power versions.  Some go for the laughs.  Others reach back closer to the originals – more brooding, dark, even scary.

I guess this one does a little of all of that, although it’s more magical and serious than wacky or dark.  Rose and Snow are definitely girls with minds of their own.  Their father’s missing and their mother’s struggling, so they wander off to all corners of a mysterious forest, discovering a library of things and stories, an underground house, a boy who raises mushrooms, and a funny little man who’s really kind of awful, demanding, and mean.

It’s not a race to the end.  Things happen, and characters dip in and out of the story, but I never felt like I was being rushed or that the action was all there just to keep things ripping along.  That might actually be one of the things I liked about it, though, since it gave me time to think about which fairy tales were being woven together instead of being smacked in the face with it.

In the end, Rose and Snow triumph, the funny little man is ruined by his greed, and Father returns.  A happy ending, yes, but it felt more like a deserved happy ending than a story twisted to create one.  Nicely done.

Snow and Rose by Emily Winfield Martin

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Good guys, bad guys, gray areas

renegades552 pages.  Sigh.

There is a whole lot of this book to like, I guess.

By the last third, you pretty much know you’re going to be reading a sequel a year from now.  There are just too many unexplored tunnels to snoop down and unanswered questions to wrap it all up in one book, even one that is 552 pages long.

The average teen super-reader can probably power through this in a few days.  There’s so much happening, some seriously conflicted characters, and loads of action.  And superheroes.  The villains might not be so bad. Some of the good guys are kind of jerks.  There’s a lot to work with here.

The writing is pitched perfectly – sometimes little jokes and sly remarks pop up, sometimes characters get dinged for taking themselves too seriously, sometimes it’s dark, sometimes silly.  Marissa Meyer manages to keep this monster of a story hurtling along, maintaining your interest, creating new things to wonder about.  It’s almost cinematic (and would make a great movie), although you might have to make a few of them to be able to cover it all.

552 pages.  Sigh.  Maybe I’ve been reading too many picture books and middle grade novels, but working this one into an already busy life takes some serious commitment in time and focus.  I hope the right readers find it.

Renegades by Marissa Meyer

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One of the 99%? It could be worse.

landscape with invisibleWhen the vuvv arrive, they come in peace.  They make deals and work with the super-rich to create a world without work, which means the rest of the world has an even harder time surviving.  Nice.

Adam and Chloe come up with a scheme to help their families survive, only to realize that making their relationship into a 1950s reality show will kill their respect for each other and any smidgen of love that might have sparked it and leave them wide open for vuvv lawsuits, too.  (Litigious aliens… what a concept.)  Add in a disease, some art, and absent family, and you’ve got a real recipe for disaster.

Strangely, there is a sort of happy ending here, but it doesn’t involve getting the vuvv to leave or becoming a part of the 1%.  Life still kind of sucks, but oh well.

Why did I like this book?  I don’t read a lot of sci-fi these days, so it was nice to come across this.  Dealing with aliens (or the 1%) is bewildering and absurd here, but it’s mostly Earth-based, not on a ship in space. Adam and Chloe are great characters who aren’t trying to save humanity–just themselves and their families–and they’re not even doing a good job of it.  I’d probably loathe Chloe as much as Adam does, but you can’t really blame her for hating him, either.  This relationship is toxic all around, which shouldn’t be a reason to like the book, but kind of is.

Maybe none of this matters?  Really, it’s just a good story—no surprise from M.T. Anderson.  It’s not 500 pages long either, although it’s stayed in my head longer than some of those have.  Good enough reasons to read it?  Yes, yes.

Landscape with Invisible Hand by M.T. Anderson

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Uni-sensors, FARTs, and Mr. X

incredible magicWow. Just wow.

Julian is special, but in so many ways that you don’t really even want to label them individually, because it might just make the greatness of who he is a little less.  His older sister Pookie is an angry teenage drama queen.  His moms have issues of their own.  And then there’s Mr. X, a neighbor who’s lost his wife and turns out to be special and mysterious in his own ways.

Julian is in the middle of all of them and on the outside all at once.  He loves science, space, and astronomers.  He wants to get a dog and name it Sirius after the Dog Star.  He wants to help his sister, his moms, and Mr. X, but he goes about it in ways that might be unexpected, funny, or slightly dangerous.

There’s a lot to like about this book—Julian’s funny and somewhat combative conversations with Mr. X, his “Facts and Random Thoughts,” also known as FARTS, Pookie’s fascination with Matt Damon and her biological father, the whole crazy family they are…

Just wow.

The Incredible Magic of Being by Katherine Erskine

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Stars and rainbows and gun violence

stars beneathI was at work  when I learned about the latest mass shooting.  We heard again that “this kind of thing doesn’t happen around here.”  Clearly, it does happen around here, more and more often.  And it’s been happening around here for a while.  We’re not really even surprised by it.

I’d been reading The Stars Beneath Our Feet for a few days, and while it’s set in New York — which might seem far away to anyone knowing where I live – it’s not far away at all.  I recognize these kids, having worked in a program similar to the one described in the book, just out here in good ol’ Iowa.  They’d lost family members to gun violence and drugs, and some lived every day with traumatic pain, not seeing any way to get out of it all.  Some of my favorite kids could be Lolly and Vega and Big Rose.

I wish they had all known Lolly and this book.  It might have given us one more way to talk about the really awful choices in front of them, things adults all want them to avoid and resist, but which, like Harp and Gully, just kept landing in the middle of the sidewalk in front of them, unavoidable.  My own Lolly, much loved by his family and friends, didn’t make the same choices and will most likely be incarcerated for many years, missing his kids’ birthdays and everything else.  His decisions will ripple out to affect even more people.  The pain just spreads.

After finishing the book, it struck me that these tragedies — mass shootings or gun violence in our neighborhoods – they’re not so far away from any of us, whether we’re in the suburbs or the city or a small town.  We act like one thing is different from another, but maybe it isn’t.  And as a country, we don’t do anything about either, no matter how many lives are ruined and wasted on it all.

This should probably have filled me with sadness and hopelessness, but it didn’t.  Lolly’s story, you see, is like a rainbow of Legos reaching out to us across that pain.  (I like the image, although I know it’s a little silly on paper.)  It needs to be read by all kids, whether they sound and look like Lolly or not.  Kids in small town and urban Iowa may look or sound different, but they live their own stories with strikingly similar challenges.

Can a book change the world or a life?  It can.  This one just might.

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

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Big hearts, big feet

little-bigfoot-big-city-9781481470773_lgIt’s kind of sweet that this book came out on Halloween, since several of the characters are putting on masks or wearing metaphorical disguises.  Those smartypants publishing folks were probably planning that whole connection, right?

Even if they had, it wouldn’t take away from this book.  Sequels and trilogies can be problematic – the characters don’t hold up with more observation, there’s a temptation to do too much, or you find yourself realizing that the future you imagined for a character after the first book is wildly different from the author’s.  Maybe, just maybe, you still think yours is better.

What’s nice about Little Bigfoot, Big City is that the characters do grow and change, and they do it in realistic ways that didn’t bug me.  There are challenges, moments of confusion, misunderstandings and many mistakes to be made.  Deep down, however, you believe that each one of the main characters wants to do what’s best and what’s right, even if that isn’t easy.  They might be on what look like opposite sides of an issue, but they are really trying.

And that’s all we can expect of ourselves some days.  Am I perfect?  No way.  But when I mess up, I try to make amends.  I try to see the other person’s point of view.  Does it matter if I’m Yare or human?  Maybe not.

Little Bigfoot, Big City by Jennifer Weiner

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Labyrinths, friends, being Bea

waytobeaMiddle school:  obstacle course or performance art?

It can be painful either way, right?  Bea is special and creative and perfect, but she doesn’t see that herself after she loses a friend over the summer before seventh grade.  She desperately wants to find a place for herself, but she questions everything.  These people can’t really like me!  No one will understand!  You almost wish you could jump ahead and know her as the really amazing young woman she’s going to turn out to be—the kind of friend who embraces the quirky in everyone and is kind and open-hearted and funny.

The Way to Bea is one of the best middle grade books I’ve read this year, because it finds such simultaneously light and deep moments in its middle school characters at such a confusing, awkward, and sometimes painful point in their lives.  Our daily lives are not all extraordinary, but we might just be extraordinary once in a while.  It’s also very, very nice to see supportive and equally quirky teachers who are looking out for kids and not part of the problem.  I know so many great teachers that I find it kind of upsetting to read fiction that paints them as unfeeling, annoying, demanding, checked out, or creepy – the kinds of teachers who will always believe a bully because his dad is rich or just do not want to get involved at all.  I don’t know teachers like that – really – so it bugs me when writers use them as an easy target.

So read this one, and then spend a few minutes with Bea creating your own haiku.  Mine?

mazes and labyrinths

blind alleys or peaceful still

which path will you choose?

The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh

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