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: It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover

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Lily and Ryle are young and beautiful and totally driven by their respective careers. Lily has fulfilled a childhood dream of opening her own florist shop, and Ryle is on the fast-track to becoming a world-renowned neurosurgeon. Ryle doesn’t date; he’s not a relationship guy, and he makes that clear to Lily from the first time they meet.  But then he changes his tune, and the two begin a whirlwind romance that has Lily reeling.  When her first love–Atlas–resurfaces from her past, she starts to question everything about her seemingly perfect life and realizes that her relationship with Ryle might be more fragile than she realized.

Woof.

It’s hard to be critical of something that is clearly not only a labor of love for an author but also a deeply personal book–the author’s note at the end helps expand on this–but the fact of the matter is, there are more problems here than good things, which made for a frustrating and uneven reading experience.  Fans of Hoover’s other works might devour this one and forgive its faults, but as a first-time reader of Hoover, there were too many things I couldn’t get past.

One of the book’s major weaknesses are its characters, who feel underdeveloped and often don’t speak like actual human beings.  More than once, I stumbled over something a character said because it just didn’t feel authentic in any way.  But what’s also surprising is that for a book that is largely character-driven, there’s very little investment in creating characters with fully-realized personalities. It’s not just the secondary characters, either: it’s the main stars. Lily isn’t developed. Ryle never comes off as anything other than an arrogant garbage monster, and that’s before his darker secrets are even revealed.

There’s also a lot going on in the novel, and it often feels like a bit too much. It tries to tackle a variety of serious, complex issues, and while some of the ruminations on the cycle of abuse are fairly well done, much of it feels half-baked. Maybe more editing would have helped; it’s certainly long enough.

And yet? I couldn’t stop reading, even though I knew where much of the narrative was headed. I felt compelled to finish it, even as it filled me with frustration. It’s not the character’s actions that felt frustrating: it’s the fact that in a stronger writer’s hands, this could have been something truly great.

Best for fans of Hoover’s other works, but this is not nearly as good as it could have been.

It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover. Atria: 2016. 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.

Read-alikes: Books About Ghosts, Pumpkins, and Skeletons

It’s the time of year when everyone wants a good scary read. Of course, not everyone defines “scary” the same way. I’ve had a lot of people come up to the desk lately asking for good scary reads, and I’ve had to help them narrow down exactly what they were looking for.

One elementary school kid came up and said he wanted “scary books” about ghosts, pumpkins, and skeletons.”  After some creative searching, I helped him find a couple of things, and then I set about to making a list of possible resources for elementary age readers looking for Halloween-y thrills.

bunnicula.jpgBunnicula by James Howe: Narrated by Harold the dog, this humorous take on a possible vampire-bunny is sure to keep kids glued to the page to find out if Bunnicula is really a vampire or just a normal rabbit. This one has been around since I was in elementary school, but it still sees a fair amount of circulation because it’s clever and timeless and who doesn’t love a good vampire mystery?

A Good Night For Ghosts by Mary Pope Osborne: Part of the good time ghosts.jpgsuper-popular Magic Tree House series, this one features the kids traveling to New Orleans where they discover jazz and also some real ghosts. Great for fans of the series as well as younger readers looking for a good ghost story.

Skeleton Creek by Patrick Carman: Strange things are happening in the town of Skeleton Creek, and Ryan and Sarah are on the case. But Ryan is housebound after an accident, and so the two communicate via written notes and recorded footage on a video camera. The book’s format allows readers to login to designated webpages to see Sarah’s footage, which makes for a mixed media approach to the story.

coralineCoraline by Neil Gaiman: Coraline has always wondered what’s behind the locked door in her house. When she finally opens it, a secret passageway appears that brings her to an apartment that looks just like hers, only different. Here she finds an alternate-universe version of her life, and she realizes things are more sinister than she originally thought. Full of thrills and chills and a bit of humor, Gaiman’s book holds massive appeal to readers–and there’s a movie, too.

The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand: At the Cavendish Home for Girls and Boys, kids learn lessons in a hard way. It isn’t long before Victoria notices that children are either coming back different or not at all. Spooky, smart, and will keep readers up late into the night.

Anything great that I missed? Let me know.

 

 

 

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.