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Funny Smart Teen Reads – Maureen Johnson

Funny Smart Teen Reads – Maureen Johnson

I used to be a high school English teacher and was always trying to recruit my students to the joys of reading. That was before the *massive* explosion of Young Adult (YA) blockbusters that now have made it one of biggest book markets globally. Nevertheless, in my quest for great reads, I do not ignore this genre–quite the opposite. From time to time, I will highlight GREAT authors and books that are YA, as I do here…

One of the funniest and best YA authors being published today is Maureen Johnson. She’s rather caught fire in the last few years; noticed both for her wonderful writing (one of her recent books was nominated for an Edgar), but also for her very funny Twitter feed. Her heroines are no one’s fool and have a sense of themselves. Here are two of her older books; one is a romp, the other has an unusual twist on a classic mythos. Both one-offs (not series) that I found particularly delightful and drove me to, yes, LOL.
Girl at Sea – This is a contemporary YA, sans fantasy, which give us Clio. Clio, an aspiring artist with her eye on the cute guy at the local art store, has a complex relationship with her father who is divorced from her mom. They were once super close—they even co-created a super popular game together that made the family briefly famous. But time and distance, and other things I won’t spoil, have distanced father from daughter. Until now: Dad wants Clio to come with him on a yacht that’s touring the Greek islands during during the summer. Sounds great, but when she gets there, she finds that she has a job—she’s the cook for trip. And she’s pissed. And also wondering what the hell is up. Her dad has a new girlfriend (maybe?) and what’s the purpose of this voyage anyhow? There’s another girl her age (fr-enemy? possible ally?) and one *very* cute but *very* crabby guy on the boat too. So intrigue, romance, and literal laughs out loud.
Devilish – This is a mostly contemporary, with a whiff of fantasy via sulfur. It is a spin-off of the Faust-myth. What would happen if your best friend, who is currently one of your school’s least popular girls, decided that it was worth selling her soul to the devil in order to become beautiful, rich and of course, insanely popular? What if you noticed that one of the school’s most popular girls wasn’t just unpleasantly bitchy, but perhaps had a Mephistopheles complex. And then what if this devil-teen-wearing-prada started to target you with her seductions of ultimate success in school, in life, with boys… all you have to do is come over to the dark side? Our heroine is strong and smart—smart as hell in fact! A match for what comes her way.

Drama Queens and Kings

Drama Queens and Kings

Wise Children by Angela Carter

“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” William Shakespeare

Wise Children (cover)
Wise Children (cover)

This is a novel told by a singular voice writing her memoir. Or shall I say their memoirs. Our narrator is Dora Chance who once lightly traipsed the British Vaudeville boards back in the day with her twin sister Nora. They have not only lived ‘life upon the wicked stage,’ but have been forever witness to a sprawling family drama that began before their birth and continues on to the next generation. The girls are the unacknowledged daughters of Sir Melchior Hazard, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his day–think of a combination of Ralph Richardson and Michael Redgrave (both of whom sired acting dynasties)–with the looks of Laurence Olivier. Later Sir Hazard goes on to have ‘legitimate’ children, which give rise to several generations of half-sisters and brothers, current- and ex-wives, children and grandchildren, all making their living via stage, screen or TV studio—the drama never stops. And Shakespeare is like their happy puppeteer making them dance amid a profusion of twins, cross-dressing heroines, hints of Hamlet and Lear, with the bluster of Taming of the Shrew and dark luster of The Tempest. And of course through the incisive voices of each character, Ms. Carter illuminates the lives of all her people, but most especially the women.

To keep up with the family connections takes a bit of work. If you don’t want to work that hard, the delightful editor of the Wise Children Wikipedia article has provided a family tree for the novel. This book is for when you want to be just a tiny bit challenged, but end up so happy you read it.

When is a story more than a story?

When is a story more than a story?

The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford

“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” The opening sentence of The Good Soldier

The Good Soldier (cover)
The Good Soldier (cover)

This book: it is so quiet, so unassuming that it sneaks up on you. You are maybe even sort of wondering why it’s a classic when it tells (you think) such a banal story. But in fact, while telling you one story, eventually another bleeds through. The presenting story: a man of a certain age, disenchanted with his life, his wife, and all the usual middle-age discontents, falls in love with a young woman. But in actual fact as the narrative progresses, a very different story emerges. This is a novel about the actual intentions and desires and impulses people feel inside themselves, and how they get expressed—or in some cases do not. There is the mask people wear and the presenting story we show to the world; some people think that is the sum total of who they are. Maybe for some it is. But Maddox Ford knows the two are not the same—that it isn’t simply what we do that matters, but why. In fact, the whys may be far more critical.

The narrator, John Dowell, tells the story of another man’s life, the ‘good soldier’ of the title*—Edward Ashburnham. At first it seems only to be a superficial description of intrigues between and among 2 couples and a young girl summering at a spa in fin de siecle  Germany, but slowly we learn much more than polite society conversation will allow. Following this Dowell begins to tell his own story. But is his story true? And if his own story isn’t true, can you trust what he’s told you about Ashburnham?

(*FYI, This is not a novel about the military or war.)

This book has no less significance because it was written at the beginning of the 1900s—this is not a romanticized Downton Abbey period piece. The veneer may be old-fashioned, but the story and its insights are eternal. Maddox Ford is more ignored than he should be. Only recently has there been a surge of interest because he wrote a novel that was the basis for a popular 2012 BBC/HBO production, Parade’s End, starring the incomparable Benedict Cumberbatch. The outline of both stories may seem similar, but I’d still urge you to read The Good Soldier. It is considered by most to be Maddox Ford’s masterpiece, and for good reason.

Sci-fi that’s worth it: The Company series by Kage Baker

Sci-fi that’s worth it: The Company series by Kage Baker

Kage Baker Books
Kage Baker BooksKageBaker02

 

This series is a wonderful mash-up of robots, wry historical ruminations, capers and hilarity. The Company series proposes that there is an omni-corporation in the future which figured out how to game history: create human-cyborg immortals, send your technicians back in time to create them and then, those cyborgs being immortal, they just LIVE through history from that point on. Then say, you plant them in various important places, at key dates. And if they happen to conserve the great treasures of the ages to be secured by the Company, so much the better (steal is such an ugly word). Or maybe it was the best cash-cow ever created! The steam-punk series follows a handful of these immortal cyborgs romping about and through time and onward into the future. Some of their insides maybe wiring, but their hearts are all human.

K. Baker, Mendoza One wonderful character we start following in the first book of the series is Mendoza. She is an impoverished waif, but with a mind and a mouth. This proves to be very dangerous given that she has the bad luck to be living under the oppressive regime of the Inquisition in Spain during the 1500s. She is accused of–of course–witchcraft and is thrown into a jail, at which point she comes to the attention of Joseph. At first he seems to be Fr. Jose, a priest, but is in fact one of our cyborgs. He sees potential for this kid and he whisks her to the relative safety of the Company, where she is re-made as a cyborg. Cut to later where Mendoza is now a teenage (image here is exactly how I picture her). She travels with Joseph to hostile England as part of a Spanish delegation under the tenuous and violent reign of Mary I, aka ‘bloody Mary’. Of course they are on a Company mission to secure select plants from the garden of their English host. However there is one very good looking Englishman who comes to the attention of Mendoza and visa-versa. He wants to convert her away from the evil Roman Catholic church, but to what exactly? She just wants him alone in that Garden of Iden. But humans and cyborgs mixing, as you might imagine, is a BIG Company no-no.
Even if you don’t think you like science-fiction, if you are a fan of history and of funny, do yourself a favor and relent and read this amazing series. It’s humor is wry, the dialog is usually hilarious and always informed with deep historical understanding (which is not always the case in genre fiction). Ruminations about human nature from the perspective of being immortal, but still having a heart and a moral compass, provides a surprising resonance to these books.
Sadly the author Kage Baker is no longer with us, but she left a fantastic trove of work. Most of her books are available via e-book, but harder to find in paper. See here for a complete list of her books with links to Amazon. Important! As noted above, because it is harder to find her books in paper, the prices on them can be very high. Instead I’d recommend finding/purchasing them in e-reader format. If you have a tablet (e.g., iPad, Kindle, etc.) or a laptop, you can access e-books via an app, such as Amazon’s Kindle App or the Kobo app (among many others that are available).  http://doctorzeus.co/kages-books/

Note bene: I’m a bit more than half-way through the series so I can’t promise it’s perfect all the way to the end, but Baker’s writing is delightful—I always look forward to reading her work. No need to read the books in order, it isn’t really a problem, you can skip around. And if you aren’t into reading series, just the first book is an absolute delight!

Book 1 (described above):

K. Baker, In the Garden of Iden

The Garden of Iden by Kage Baker

 

Book 2 The 2nd book features Joseph (who hales from the tribe who painted in the paleolithic Lascaux caves) on a dubious project of the Company’s.

K. Baker, Sky Coyote

Sky Coyote by Kage Baker

 

Book 3 And if you can’t get enough of Mendoza, the 3rd book again features her prominently. The Hollywood of the title is the famous hills of Los Angeles, but during the dangerous mid-1800s when EVERYONE in L.A. and its hills owned 1 or more guns.

K. Baker, Mendoza in Hollywood

Mendoza in Hollywood by Kage Baker

 

Existential, coming-of-age, wildly readable

Existential, coming-of-age, wildly readable

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Book cover-Special Topics In Calamity Physics
Book cover-Special Topics In Calamity Physics

What is that intangible thing an author provides that makes you start a book you don’t expect to like, and then you come up for air and you realize that it’s way past your bedtime? I bought this book because it was the literary gem of the season by precocious wunderkind Pessl, recently graduated from college. I rolled my eyes when I found our protagonist had the pretentious name of Blue van Meer. She has lived and been schooled in dozens of cities by her restless father, and now in her senior year, she’s dumped in a high-end prep school and seduced into a snotty clique. Could I really like this? When I looked up, I’d read without moving for nearly 3 hours.
As others have said before me, this book fits into no neat genre: part coming-of-age; part mystery, but with details that feel more like an espionage tale; erudite and written with the flare of an old master of the written page, but never for the sake of showing off—only ever to entreat you deeper into this amazing story. It doesn’t keep to its traces but breaks out all over the place. Like an origami flower, it folds out wider and wider, and we are no longer in high-school prep/clique land but in a much vaster field. Also there is real beauty, wonder, pain, heartbreak—and suspense! Seriously, this book has it all.
Pessel is one of the best writers of her generation. STinCP came out in 2007 and she has just released her second novel Night Film in 2013. From the reviews, it seems she has done it again (currently on my short ‘to read’ list).
Grade: 5+ stars

Need a funny read, but still a little substance?

Need a funny read, but still a little substance?

This is where I leave you by Johnathan Tropper

This is where I leave you: A Novel
This is where I leave you: A Novel

While it’s beginnings sound somber—a family of adults attend the funeral of the their father and find that, even though the family was not religious, his dying wish was that the family come together and sit Shiva (mourning) for the requisite week. Thus begins this funny, and at times, touching novel as told by a wonderfully muddled 40-something guy trying to parse it all. It breezes along and you’ll be glad you went on the ride. (And yes, soon the movie is coming out.) 4 stars