Book Review: Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

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Ted is a lonely writer in his early 40s, and his longtime companion is his dachshund named Lily.  The two spend much of their time together, playing board games, talking about which boys they think are cute (Ted likes Ryan Gosling; Lily likes Ryan Reynolds), and watching movies.  One day, Ted notices an octopus on the side of Lily’s head, and the two embark on an adventure to try to defeat the sinister eight-legged creature.

The octopus, of course, is really a tumor, and the book is really about love, loss, grief, and all the stuff in between.  Rowley’s debut novel is funny, smart, weird, and blisteringly sad at times (this reviewer ugly cried through much of it), but it’s also a celebration of the unique bond between human and canine, and it’s ultimately a very beautiful tribute to dogs everywhere.

Some readers are going to struggle with one of the novel’s central issues: the “octopus,” which Ted refuses to call by any other name, and the willingness of those around him to also refer to the tumor as an octopus.  There are moments where this becomes a little grating, but the novel’s venture into magical realism helps sell it. Even if it didn’t, the book’s strengths far outweigh this sometimes irritating affectation.

Far and away the book’s strongest moments are the ones in which Rowley creates a fully-realized character in that of Lily, a dog who loves her owner as much as he loves her. She’s a lazy little snuggler, a lover of ice cream and turkey (TOFURKEY!), and she’s stubborn, too, in the best ways that dogs can be.  She talks to Ted, and she sounds exactly as one would expect a dog to talk.

Rowley is a gifted writer, and this is a strong debut. He’s one to watch, and this excellent novel is one to stay up late reading (and crying). Recommended.

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowely. Simon & Schuster: 2016. Library copy.

 

Book Review: If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

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Amanda Hardy is new to Lambertville, Tennessee.  Determined to have a fresh start for her senior year, she wants to make friends and fit in.  But she’s harboring a secret and a past that threaten to disrupt her new life, and she’s determined to keep her secret safe so that she can remain safe.  But she doesn’t bank on meeting Grant Everett, and she doesn’t plan on falling in love with him.  Grant seems different, and the two have an undeniable connection. She wants to share everything with him, but she’s not sure she can share the one thing she wants most to tell him: she used to be Andrew Hardy.

Hailed as one of the best YA books of 2016, Meredith Russo’s debut novel about a trans girl trying to make a new life for herself after a brutal attack has earned its extensive praise. This novel offers trans teens and adults a story that is at once sweetly romantic while also very believable, grounded in enough realism without ever veering into the horrifically tragic. The novel offers enough friction in the plot to offer readers insight into the real dangers that Amanda faces as a girl without ever overwhelming the narrative.  There’s good writing here, although at times the dialogue feels a bit clunky, and the exploration of new friendships helps flesh out the narrative beyond the typical romance.

The plot moves quickly, the characters are engaging and interesting, and this is a necessary novel for all readers.  It’s one to stock your shelves with and push into the hands of teens.  There’s lots to discuss here as well, and it’s going to garner those discussions.  Highly recommended.

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. Flatiron Books: 2016. Library copy.

 

Book Review: Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

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In Furiously Happy, Jenny Lawson entertains readers with stories about her strange, wonderful, and weird life.  Tackling issues such as depression and anxiety as well as a bizarre number of anecdotes about encounters with wild possums, Lawson’s memoir is full of stories that will make readers laugh uproariously and commit to being as furiously happy as Lawson is herself.

Like most collections of essays, some of the pieces in Lawson’s follow-up to Let’s Pretend this Never Happened are stronger than others, and some are much, much funnier than others, but all of them maintain Lawson’s unique voice and particular brand of humor. In this collection of essays, Lawson devotes much of her attention on living with a variety of mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, as well as spending some time talking about some of her other ailments, including rheumatoid arthritis.

Lawson’s voice is authentic and unique, but it won’t work for all readers, as some might find her crude or even a bit grating at times.  But there’s a brilliance to many of her offbeat observations about the world, even as they spiral out into the truly weird.  Her personality is juxtaposed by her much more grounded husband’s logic, and the conversations Lawson includes between the two of them are some of the book’s best moments.

The strongest moments are when Lawson digs deep into the symptoms of her depression and anxiety and explains how they impact her day-to-day life. There are moments of deep insight and clarity as she goes into detail about how her symptoms manifest (this is especially true of scenes in her therapist’s office, which some readers might find deeply uncomfortable).

There’s a lot here that’s genuinely funny, and Lawson is a good writer, but there are moments where the content feels a bit thin, and reading all of this at once only serves to underscore that weakness.  Much of this works better in smaller doses (much like on Lawson’s blog), but that shouldn’t deter her diehard fans.  On the whole, this is a funny, frank, and sometimes moving look at mental illness.

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Terrible Things by Jenny Lawson. Macmillon: 2015. Library (audio) copy for review.

Book Review: El Deafo by Cece Bell

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Cece is about to start a new school, one where all the other kids aren’t deaf like she is. She’s got her Phonic Ear to help her hear her teacher during class, but she’s sure everyone is staring at the wires that come with it. When she discovers that the Phonic Ear allows her to hear her teacher no matter where she is in the school building, she realizes she’s been granted a rare, special power. She hopes this will be the thing that will help her make a real, true friend.

Cece Bell’s graphic novel is part fiction, part memoir, and it’s full of humor and heart with tons of kid appeal. Bell’s book features brightly colored illustrations, smart text, and a fast-paced plot that will keep readers turn the pages as they travel along with Cece as she navigates the hearing world.

There’s lots of issues explored within the pages of this novel, including finding friendship, being lonely, feeling different, and navigating the painful process of growing up.  Tons of kids will relate to the insecurities Cece faces, and she provides smart insight into the issues without ever crossing over into didacticism.

The graphic aspect of the novel allows her to play around with how she experiences the world as a deaf person, and how she might mishear those around her.  The result is a successful visual exploration of Cece’s deafness, and one that hearing kids will be able to grasp more fully.

Recommended. It’s an award winner and runner-up for a reason.

El Deafo by Cece Bell. Amulet/Abrams: 2014. Library copy.

 

Series Review: Aurora Teagarden Books by Charlaine Harris

Recently, I checked out the Aurora Teagarden series by Charlaine Harris. I’ve read many of Harris’s other series and generally like them, and I’m trying to read more genre fiction in an attempt to step up my readers’ advisory skills. Reading about a small-town public librarian seemed like a fun way to do so.

real-murdersI read the first three books in the Aurora Teagarden series: Real Murders; A Bone to Pick; and Three Bedrooms, One Corpse.  Each one focuses on Aurora Teagarden, her small town on the very outskirts of Atlanta, and the murder mysteries she keeps finding herself embroiled in. They’re murder mysteries, but they’re largely cozy ones: there’s very little graphic violence, virtually no sex, and very little swearing. Although the books follow a general narrative thread of Aurora’s personal life, they don’t need to be read in order, as each one has a separate mystery that is resolved within the confines of the novel.

On the whole, they’re pretty charming, and work as great readalikes for mystery fans who like cozies, who like novels about small towns with vivid casts of characters, and who are looking specifically to read Harris’s backlist (which is extensive; she’s a prolific writer who has been at this for decades).

What was interesting to me as a reader of Harris’s work is how far she’s come in her three-bedroomswriting, specifically when it comes to sexual content and to diversity.  Comparing this series (her earliest series) to her most recent (Midnight, Texas), it’s impossible not to see how deliberate Harris has been in increasing the amount of diversity, not only in the racial and ethnic backgrounds of her characters, but also in their sexual orientation and socioeconomic statuses.

The first novel in this series was published in 1990, and it feels a little dated (not just the clothing styles referenced in the book, but in other ways, to). But it’s still a largely enjoyable mystery that mystery readers are likely to gobble up. The most recent book in the series is being released this month, so expect an uptick in the series backlist, too.

All copies borrowed from the library for review.

Book Review: The Leaving by Tara Altebrando

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Eleven years ago, six kids in kindergarten went missing without a single clue as to where they went. The town called it “The Leaving.” Today, five of those missing kids returned. They’re teens now, and they don’t remember a single thing about where they’ve been. But they seem okay. The only missing kid who doesn’t return is Max, and his little sister Avery is desperate for answers.

Tara Altebrando’s mystery about missing kids returning to a place they no longer fit into should have been a stay-up-late, absolutely riveting read. But despite the captivating premise and strong start to the story, the execution as a whole fell very flat. An overly-long narrative, an overly-complicated premise, and a stagnant middle make for an uneven reading experience.

One thing that does work well here is Altebrando’s multiple narrators. Told from the perspectives of Scarlett, Lucas, and Avery (the still-missing Max’s younger sister), each voice is distinct enough to keep them straight, and the different structures of each narrative helps separate them further.

The eventual reveal is fairly satisfying, but it takes so long to get there that it feels like a bit of a letdown. Some readers will still find this whole story captivating, but those looking for a super-fast-paced thriller should look elsewhere. The middle of this drags on, and a tighter editing hand could have done a great service.

Twisty and complicated.

The Leaving by Tara Altebrando. Bloomsbury: 2016. Library copy.

 

Book Review: Pax by Sara Pennypacker

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Pax is a fox, rescued when he was a tiny kit after his family was killed.  Peter, his “boy,” rescued him. He’s lived in domesticity with Peter ever since, and the two are inseparable.  But war is coming, and Peter’s father has enlisted, which means Peter is being shipped off to live with his grandfather. Pax is left by the side of the road, hundreds of miles from where Peter ends up. Determined to make it back to each other, each one embarks on a journey of self-discovery.

Sara Pennypacker’s moving story about a boy and his fox is a heartbreaking page-turner of a novel.  Interspersed in the beautiful prose are black and white illustrations from Jon Klassen, and these help bring the story right off the page. Told in alternating chapters by both Peter and Pax, the story remains grounded in reality even though one of the book’s narrators is a fox.

Beautifully paced and artfully told, Pennypacker allows the reader insight into the horrors of war not through the eyes of Peter, but through those of Pax, who sees woodland creatures blown up by mines.  The underscoring of how far-reaching the terrors of war can be is done successfully, with subtlety and grace.  Because so few of the characters in the story are actually named, the book feels very much like a fable.

Every moment in this novel feels real, and authentic, and emotionally resonant. It’s a sad story that is also full of hope, and it is one that begs to be read by young readers as well as adults. Kids will want to talk about this one, so be ready for hard questions about life and death, war, and much more.

Highly, highly recommended.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker. Balzer + Bray: 2016. Library copy.