Monthly Archives: July 2014

Review: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

When You Reach MeI was actually combing the library stacks for promising books for my kids to read when I stumbled on this book. The inside jacket cover description was so intriguing that I checked it out for myself instead, even though middle grade books aren’t normally my thing.

When You Reach Me is the story of Miranda, a twelve-year-old girl living in New York in 1979. She lives with her mom, a single mother whose path to law school was interrupted when Miranda came along. Her favorite book, one she reads over and over, is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

Miranda’s best friend, Sal, has suddenly stopped talking to her, even though he lives in the same building. Even stranger, she’s found mysterious notes from someone who knows more about her than seems possible. And then there’s the homeless man on the corner she has to pass each day as she walks home from school.

Although this book is shelved in the kids’ section, When You Reach Me is so wise and funny and subtly told that it deserves to be called, very simply, a great novel, without any qualifiers. Miranda experiences all the unspoken joy and pain of friendship and isolation, the gradual insight into the world of adults that comes with growing up.

Some people say that if a book is written about kids, for kids, grown-ups have no business reading it. I feel sorry for anyone who misses out on this lovely and observant book just because they’ve left childhood behind. Rebecca Stead clearly remembers what it feels like to be twelve, the magic and the uncertainty, the potential and the loss. Reading this story as an adult is the only type of time travel most forty-year-olds like me will ever know.

Genre: Beautifully wise fiction for kids of all ages, with a science-fictional twist.

Read it if: You loved A Wrinkle in Time; you wonder what it would have been like to be a sixth-grade latchkey kid in New York City in the late 70s; you love a tense and fascinating story, perfectly told.

Skip it if: You only read books about people your own age, doing things that could actually happen in real life, and that’s the way you like it; you have written an article for a major media outlet stating all the reasons adults should be embarassed to read anything written for mere children; you were never a child.

Movie-worthy: Yes! In the right hands, it could be wonderful.

Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

LandlineWhen Rainbow Rowell has a new book out, I don’t even bother to read what it’s about. I just buy it. Ever since I got my hands on an advanced reader’s copy of her first novel, Attachments, I have been a huge fan of her funny, heart-warming style and her lovable characters.

In Landline, 37-year-old Georgie McCool is looking at what might be the biggest opportunity of her successful career: a chance to run her own TV show along with her longtime writing partner Seth. The catch: finishing the four scripts she needs for the big meeting would mean working over Christmas, separated from her husband and two daughters.

Georgie’s husband, Neal, is a man of few words. He has stayed home with the kids while Georgie pursued her dreams and although Georgie knows he isn’t particularly happy in LA, she has taken his help and support for granted. Unable to reach him at his mother’s house in Omaha, increasingly unsure whether Neal has left for Christmas or for good, Georgie begins to wonder if her choices have jeopardized her marriage.

While Georgie is crashing at her mom’s house, she pulls out an old rotary phone and attempts to reach her husband on the landline at his ┬ámother’s in Omaha. She discovers that, somehow, she can use the phone to speak with Neal in 1998–the Christmas break after their big fight in college, the last time she thought they might have broken up.

I’ll be honest here, people: if this were any other author, I would snort derisively and toss the book aside at this point. A magic phone? Seriously? But since this is Rainbow Rowell we’re talking about, I not only continued to read but couldn’t put the book down. Tension builds as Georgie struggles to focus on her work while the looming questions about her marriage distract her; in the meantime, her nightly conversations with 1998 Neal remind her why she fell in love in the first place.

It’s possible this book resonates with me even more because I married at about the same age as Georgie, and 16 years later a lot has changed. It is all too easy to forget who we were all those years ago, broke and in love, ridiculously optimistic and really, really young. Four kids and a few countries later, I loved reading this book not least for its funny, heartfelt depiction of marriage and parenthood, and because it reminded me of my own choices and why I’m still very glad I made them.

Genre: Contemporary fiction with a magical twist

Read it if: you already love Rainbow Rowell, you fell in love in the 1990s and want to have flashbacks, or you can’t resist a novel featuring a bedazzled pug sweatshirt.

Skip it if: you dislike funny heartwarming books about married people pushing forty; you have strong feelings about strong language; you have an unreasonable hatred of Omaha.

Movie-worthy: Yes! The casting would have to be perfect, but this would make a great movie. They could release it at Christmas. I demand to see this movie!

 

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Review: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

Perdido Street StationBe glad, very glad, that you don’t live in New Crobuzon. The setting for China Mieville’s vividly imagined and wildly inventive novel is a dangerous city run by an oppressive government in league with a shadowy criminal. “Xenians,” strange beings with origins in distant lands, live in slums, self-imposed isolation or tense assimilation.

Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin is a scientist, a genial man who pays little attention to the currents of power and threat in the city. He is focused on his theoretical work, and his secret, forbidden love affair with a khepri woman. Lin, his lover, is an artist who has cast off the traditional dress and communal ties of her people, choosing an independent life among other artists and free-thinkers.

When Isaac receives a commission from a scarred and secretive stranger, he embarks unwittingly on a course that will utterly destroy his peaceful life and reveal the horrors hidden within the locked rooms and hidden chambers of the city.

Mieville describes the irrepressible life and sordid squalor of the city in such captivating prose, I found it impossible to look away, even as things went from grim to godawful. You might think that a book featuring water-bending semi-aquatic vodyanoi and stolid cactus people would be whimsical and enchanting, but the story is so grounded in its setting, so strongly bound to the brutal and merciless city, that any fleeting whimsy is quickly crushed like a butterfly under a boot.

In some ways, Perdido Street Station reads like an urban fairy tale in the true spirit of the brothers Grimm: with lopped off toes and pecked out eyes, burning hot shoes and a last fatal dance. If you’re looking for a happily ever after, however, you’d better look elsewhere.

Genre: Fantastical urban fiction that blends science and magic with steampunk flair.

Read it if: you are intrigued by grotesque villains, bird-faced garuda men, and horrifyingly beautiful creatures that can drink your dreams directly from your mind; you think happy endings are for suckers.

Skip it if: you prefer not to read about squalor, torture, gruesome deaths, etc.; the thought of a giant spider with tiny human hands would potentially haunt your nightmares forever; you already stopped reading this review when I said ‘cactus people.’

Movie-worthy: How? Maybe it would be possible with today’s CGI but it is really hard to picture.

 

From Bangkok to Bombay

After three years living in India, the kids and I packed up and left our home in Chennai for good just over a week ago. We are on the first leg of our American tour, visiting family in Kentucky before heading to Florida, DC, New York and then on to our next temporary home: Rangoon, Burma. (AKA Yangon, Myanmar.)

It’s hard to believe we’re really moving to Burma when the kids are off jug fishing with my Dad and brothers, when we’re spending lazy days at the library or in the park. It truly feels like a different world. So imagine my delight when, while wandering through used book stores in Lexington, Kentucky with my mom and sister, I discovered this little gem: From Bangkok to Bombay by Frank G. Carpenter.

From Bangkok to Bombay

Published in 1924, From Bangkok to Bombay promises that “Reading Carpenter is seeing the world.” It features 102 illustrations, photographs from the author’s extensive travels through South Asia. We spent three years in Bangkok and another three in India (in Chennai, not Bombay/Mumbai, but still) but when I picked up the book it opened immediately to a chapter on, you guessed it, Burma.

Carpenter has this to say about the Burma of 1924: “The country is bigger than France, Germany, or the Spanish peninsula, and it has a population of 13 millions, of whom eight millions are the Burmans, the happiest, best-dressed, and most likeable [sic] people of Asia.”

This is truly why I love used book stores. Serendipitous finds like this don’t happen every time I wander through the shelves, but when they do it really feels like a little present from the universe.