Tuesday, October 28, 2014

By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain by Joe Hill

Neighborhood kids wandering the foggy morning beach make a startling discovery - the beach boulder they've climbed in fun turns out to be their lake's fabled sea monster, dead and washed up on the sand.

This short story has been published as a stand-alone ebook. Since I'm a sucker for anything Joe Hill writes, you know I'm in. At just 20 pages, it's a masterful piece of childhood innocence that grips you, then nails you, and left me stunned. Did I mention just 20 pages of actual story? :)

Skink - No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen

Worried about his possibly-missing cousin Malley, a teenage boy stumbles into an important friendship on the beach: Skink, the eccentric former Florida governor familiar to fans of Hiaasen's adult novels.

It's the typical teen novel where a guy just can't wait for the police to do their job and has to take matters into his own hands. The difference is that in this one he's got a ethically oriented yet unstable adult to drive, guide, and kick ass; just when Richard needs an ally to rescue Malley from an internet predator, the slightly crazy swamp dweller with a million-dollar smile turns up for the caper.

It's a rare Hiaasen novel that doesn't take on environmental vigilantism - although Skink still finds a couple ways to educate everyone on native fauna. And while the wacko forms of death that are a Hiaasen hallmark are toned down a bit for the juvenile audience, because he wrote this one for teens he gets to leave in some of the gore.

I'm not sure why Hiaasen was determined to break into the young adult market, but the book feels a bit watered down to reach the market. I enjoyed the book (and I've long thought a Skink-centric novel was overdue), but the same story with only a few tweaks would easily have been a more satisfying adult novel. He wouldn't have even needed to change the character's ages - adults can handle a book with a teen protagonist.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Fame Thief by Timothy Hallinan

In this third novel of the Junior Bender series, our hero is called upon by a powerful Mobster to investigate the end of a Hollywood starlet's career more than 60 years ago.

Junior's not actively thieving anything in this book - he's too busy digging into the 1950s and juggling his relationship with new girlfriend Ronnie (but he does make a little time to wreck havoc in his ex-wife's life). It turns out the long-forgotten starlet has been living just a couple floors above Junior's head at his secret lair that's much less secret than he'd thought.

There are lots of great Golden Age of Hollywood stories in the book - from the starlet Delores, and also from some of the dames and heavies around her at the time. And once again, Junior's precocious preteen daughter acts as his research guru and smart-alecky moral compass.

I've really come to enjoy this series - the ace burglar with a heart of gold is fun, and Hallinan does a bang-up job with the story and characters.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Without fail, Cadence Sinclair Easton spends every summer on her grandfather's island off Martha's Vineyard with her aunts and cousins. There are four big kids alike in age: Cadence, Johnny, Mirren, and family friend Gat. They swim, read, flirt, canoe, avoid the "littles," explore, and talk the summers away.

But something happened on the island the summer the big kids were 15, Cadence was instead sent to Europe for summer 16, and only after a tantrum is she allowed a short 4-week island stay in this summer 17. She's got mega-migraines, complete amnesia of summer 15, and everyone is under strict orders to not answer her questions or tell her anything about what happened.

So what happened? From the start we know we've got an unreliable narrator - the book is named "We Were Liars," she's got holes in her memory, and it sometimes takes a while to determine when Cadence's stories shift into elaborately embroidered metaphor. I spent the whole book looking for answers and hidden meanings and lies - and yet, I still was blindsided when the truth was revealed.

I finished the audiobook today, and I'm starting right back over again from the beginning tomorrow with the paper copy of the book; I have to go back and do it all over again, now that I KNOW.

And I have NEVER said that before! Amazing.

And My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You by Kathi Kamen Goldmark

In one amazing, unforgettable day singer Sarah Jean Pixlie gets fired from a major country music star's roadshow, finds out a song she recorded on a whim months ago has gone viral and has made her a hot commodity, and has a one-night stand that will change her life. And that's just the start of this novel about musicians and the music business, about honkeytonk bars and awards shows, and about parenthood in all its forms and flavors.

I picked up this book after reading several tributes to the author, who passed away in 2012 and was the founder of the all-author band the Rock Bottom Remainders. As a working musician and author, Goldmark gave the book a definite insider feel - you know the behind-the-scenes scenes are as true to life as you're going to find.

It's a funny, fluffy book with few major surprises - but I didn't even mind the thin plot when there was so much fun to be had with this rowdy bunch of characters. It's light, but fun.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Everybody's Baby by Lydia Netzer

When a young couple face infertility, they choose a Kickstarter campaign to fund their in-vitro treatments. What can possibly go wrong in parenting the most-connected fetus on the planet?

This one is a novella only available in ebook format. I've loved both of Netzer's novels (How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky and Shine, Shine, Shine), so I was anxious to read this little stand-alone story too. And I certainly wasn't disappointed!

Every pregnant lady has horror stories about boundry stomping - seems like everyone you meet has an opinion they're dying to share about birthing, naming, eating, diapering, ultrasounds, and more. It's worse when you're a public person (say like a celebrity, public official, or business owner) and even more extreme when you've INVITED the world to participate in this very personal experience like Jenna and Billy do. What if the woman who bought the naming rights decides to name your baby after her two dying cats? Or the gender announcement turns into a political statement?

The great thing about novellas is that they're quick. The disadvantage is they're over before you know it. This is a great story with relatable characters even in their eccentricity, and it could be used as a morality tale for every 21st century prospective parent.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick

Amber Appleton is the princess of hope - she's super involved in tons of community service projects, and she bounces through life with a song in her heart and a smile on her lips. Which is why nobody has figured out yet that she and her mom are homeless (living on a school bus), and that things aren't so rosy in Amber's home life.

In typical Matthew Quick style, this is a fun book full of slang and trendy teen talk. He's a master at getting you inside the head of his fully-formed characters, and Amber's a real prize. While she's doing her best and pulling out all the stops, she's also just as flawed and mis-directed as the rest of us.

Additionally, this book is chock full of other fantastic people: the misfit band of boys with whom Amber hangs, her English-as-a-second-language learners (aka The Korean Divas for Christ), and all the old folks at the Methodist home gathering for her weekly verbal smackdown with a hundred-year-old pessimist, just to name a few.

I loved this book - but then, I haven't read a bad Matthew Quick book yet. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The 21 Balloons by William Pene du Bois

After being rescued at sea from the debris of a hot air balloon craft half a world away from where he started only three weeks before, Professor William Waterman Sherman becomes a reluctant celebrity. But despite the media hounding him to tell his story, the drama builds because Sherman says he won't explain what happened until he gets to San Francisco to reveal the tale first before the Western American Explorers' Club. Despite the speculation and rumors that run rampant on the street and in the media, the fantastical story he tells in San Francisco is even wilder and way more curious than anyone had dreamed.

This book was originally published in 1947, and it won the 1948 Newbery Award. I picked it up recently upon the recommendation of a local family who had just read it together.

Some children's books don't age well, but this novel's storyline was never "fresh" so it hasn't grown stale; the storyline occurs in 1883 when ballooning was at its zenith of popularity, so even in the 1940s it was a historical tale. Neither of us at our library had heard of the book before, and I thoroughly enjoyed discovering this forgotten classic.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How to Catch a Frog: And Other Stories of Family, Love, Dysfunction, Survival, and DIY by Heather Ross

Quilters and sewists already know Heather Ross as a fabric designer; parents and librarians know her as a book illustrator. In both cases, wonderfully illustrated characters and vignettes have become her hallmark - there's a soft, yet contemporary feel to her work.

But here, Ross as a writer presents the story of her tough childhood growing up poor in Vermont. Much about that growing-up has shaped her illustrations, and the book is liberally sprinkled with art too. The more you know about her life, the clearer her art becomes.

That said, the book stands on its own two feet. It's a good read - sad, but not syrupy or begging for sympathy. It reminded me quite a bit of "The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls about her nontraditional and frankly neglectful youth in the Southwestern desert.

Most of Ross' childhood was spent living in an uninsulated schoolhouse in the wild woods with her mother and sister. They stoked a wood stove for heat and food was never her mother's priority for their lean funds. Later in life when she complained to her mother about her childhood without, her mother scoffed and told her she'd gained plenty of stories from the experience.