Saturday, February 1, 2014

Super Bowl Sunday BOOK REVIEWS

The 2014 Super Bowl is being played in the stadium of my beloved New York Jets.  Unfortunately the Jets won't be playing in the game.  Oh well.  There's always next year...or the year after that...or the year after that...or...You get the idea.  And if you read down farther you'll also get my latest batch of book reviews.  Included are 3 titles by the wonderful Kate DiCamillo who recently won her second well deserved Newbery Medal.  Be sure to let me know which of my reviews you agree wholeheartedly with, what you disagree with, and if I've convinced you to give any of these fine books a try.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman - This is the first Neil Gaiman novel that I've read, though I already considered myself a fan due to a couple of his children's books (Blueberry Girl, Crazy Hair) and the animated adaptation of Coraline. Like the latter, The Ocean at the End of the Lane gives us two worlds (at minimum), the one we're all familiar with and another terrifying one in which anything goes. The invented world is vague and transient and omniscient and nearly omnipotent. There are some guidelines and boundaries it must adhere to though, otherwise it would swallow this one. I think that's a proper translation of what goes on in this novel. Gaiman does an excellent job of putting you into the main character's head, a young boy filled with terror and confusion as the fabric of his comfortable existence unravels. One child's pond is another child's ocean, but when it comes to books I'm of the opinion that you've either written a fine one or you haven't. Neil Gaiman wrote a fine one.

LUSH LIFE by Richard Price - Lush Life is a solid police procedural that brought me back to the days when I was obsessed with the genre, particularly novels by Joseph Wambaugh. This is not a whodunnit. We know precisely who killed Ike and why. The narrative jumps back and forth between the detective determined to solve the crime while also dealing with the unstable grieving father of the victim and matters in his personal life, a witness to the murder who is initially treated as a suspect and struggles mightily to deal with his martyr complex, and the killer who is too busy striving to be respected by his peers and trying to impress a girl to give much thought to that murder he rashly committed one night. A crime is most easily solved while it's still hot, but even with two eyewitnesses left among the living, this one keeps getting colder. The detective resolutely marches on, determined to keep this case from his list of unsolved mysteries. We go along for the bumpy ride.

LIVE BY NIGHT by Dennis Lehane - This book is chock full of story elements that I'm drawn to. Jazz Age - gangsters - Cuba - love - sex - power - legacy - vengeance - loyalty - double crossing - corruption - hypocrisy - redemption - resignation - inextinguishable hope - irony - inevitability. A rousing read deserving of its accolades. This isn't your fancy literary lit. It comes at the reader straight, no chaser.  I loved every page.

THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX by Kate DiCamillo - Utterly charming. Completely captivating. Sweet and funny with liberal doses of grit and peril. Full of life lessons that one can never be too young or too old to learn. This delightful tale goes down nice & easy like a bowl of your favorite soup.

THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE by Kate DiCamillo This was a bit too heavy for my 7 year old daughter. Who knew a Velveteen Rabbit update would be so intense? She kept asking me to stop but I'm not in the habit of stopping a book when I get deeply into it, so I kept promising that all would end happily. I did skip the death scene involving a 4-year old girl though. Didn't see that coming at all. Eventually we made it to the happy ending that took place pretty much exactly as expected. She was thrilled, so all is well that ends well. In addition to The Velveteen Rabbit I was reminded of the movie A.I. Also Pinocchio. Similarities to other stories based on former or currently inanimate objects with rich interior lives aside, Edward Tulane's journey stands up well in its own right. But if I had to do it over again I'd read this book for myself and let my daughter read it on her own when she was a little older.

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo - This book vaults up to the top of my list of favorite books for children. It isn't just for kids though. It's for anyone who realizes that life at the best of times spent with the finest of people is sweetness and light, but along the way there are losses, and what we've lost adds a measure of sorrow that never fades completely away. We're not always aware of the sorrow, and it lessens as time heals and new people come along for us to love. It is because of a dog she names Winn-Dixie that a young girl named Opal starts to let new people into her heart. They can't replace the mother who left her. Nobody can do that. Nothing will entirely remove that sorrow. But there's nothing wrong with the remnants of the sorrow hanging on. It's an inevitable side effect of being alive.

THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P. Jones - I finished this masterpiece with about 20 minutes left to go in the year 2013. Looking forward to many great reads in 2014 but they'll need to be magnificent to share space on a bookshelf with this one. Reading The Known World put me one step closer to my goal of reading all of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction award winners -

Is the question "how (morally) could there have been black slave owners who were formerly slaves themselves?" a predecessor to "why is black on black crime so prevalent?" or "why do some black people (Michael Jackson being an especially well known example) seem to be trying to escape their blackness by cloaking it in what is commonly accepted as whiteness?" or "is the survival Darwin spoke of primarily achieved by looking out for yourself, even if the most effective method of ascension is using your own people to reach and remain at the top?"  Edward P. Jones puts these questions in your head.  Answer them as best you can.

THE HERO'S GUIDE TO SAVING YOUR KINGDOM by Christopher Healy - I love the premise of this book. It's true that most of the classic fairy tales are Princess-centric. The "charming" prince is simply the guy who shows up and saves the day, with "saving the day" defined as falling in love with her at first sight and marrying her. In between those two steps he may need to do something daring like conquering a witch or dragon, or something relatively uncomplicated like ending her magical coma with a kiss. The women are slighted, even though they get to be the stars of the stories, because they are depicted as helpless. The men are slighted because even though they're the heroes, the majority of spotlight goes to the rescued damsels in distress. The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom addresses both of these matters. The story focuses on the guys who show up to save the day, but instead of superheroes we are presented with flawed men who must overcome their fears and ineptitude and lack of expertise. The princesses, although they vacate center stage, are far braver and capable of taking heroic matters into their own hands than the versions of them we've grown accustomed to. I applaud the objectives of this book along with the sense of humor displayed throughout. My main complaint is that I found it to be over-long. This tale would have been stronger had it been a little tighter in my opinion, and that would have made me more eager to tackle part 2. Overall though, I enjoyed reading this book aloud to my daughter and she was fond of it as well. She also loved the scattering of illustrations by Todd Harris and wouldn't have minded more of them.

RUNNING WITH SCISSORS by Augusten Burroughs - Burroughs apparently had the strangest, most warped upbringing of just about any person ever. His father drops out of the picture altogether, his mother barely takes more responsibility for seeing their son to adulthood than the dad, handing him over to a substitute home in the "care" of her psychiatrist. Dr. Finch (who is married but his wife is in no way a mother figure) doesn't do much to raise Augusten or any of the other minors in his household, just as he doesn't do much for his patients beyond providing medication. Are his methods unorthodox or is he certifiably insane, which makes his occupation ironic and the roles of doctor and patient practically interchangeable? He seems pretty crazy to me, which does not make him stand out from the others who populate this book. How can those under his care not be crazy when there are no rules in place, no structure, no moral compass, no guidance or sense of direction? There is simply a roof overhead and sufficient funds to get the inhabitants of the fun house from one day to the next. I didn't think of it while reading, but as I compose this review I suppose the stories I've read previously that come closest to Running with Scissors are located in the Pippi Longstocking books. With no adult supervision it's always playtime and bad choices are guaranteed. Much of the bizarre happenings that take place during Augusten's teen years are amusing. They take place mostly in the home of Dr. Finch or his mother's apartment, school attendance being a non-factor. But just when you've grown accustomed to the wacky Pippi-like tone, the book turns sexually graphic. No details are spared in describing the 14 year old boy's "relationship" with a man in his mid-30's, a man who also was "adopted" by Dr. Finch so technically they should be siblings rather than lovers. I found it quite jarring whenever the focus was on Augusten's involvement with Bookman, primarily because these sections are surrounded by so much silliness, and because Burrough's does not bother with hints and innuendo in describing their sex life. There is plenty of other inappropriate sex going on throughout the narrative, but much of the rest of it is mentioned casually in passing. Sex whenever with whoever is just another thing to do to alleviate boredom, sometimes resulting in pesky emotional attachment, sometimes not. This is a well written and certainly memorable memoir. It ends with an Epilogue that tells us what became of the various people who were featured in the book. All things considered, life could have gone a lot worse for them. But what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, or in the case of Augusten Burroughs, a writer with a tall tale to tell.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Patches Of Grey by Roy L. Pickering Jr.

Patches Of Grey

by Roy L. Pickering Jr.

Giveaway ends February 14, 2014.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

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