Review of “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler

This is a wonderful book about which I can say hardly anything, because it would be spoilery. It won the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award, made the short list for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, and was named a Best of 2013 pick by a number of periodicals.

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It’s smart, poignant, and incredibly thought-provoking. At it’s basis, it’s a story about family: what comprises family, and what constitutes dysfunction in a family. But this is a not a family situation that will alienate you. These are well-meaning people with quintessentially human emotions, both good and bad.

As you learn the story of this family, you also are presented with the narrator Rosemary’s thoughts about science, language, memory, and of course, family.

Evaluation: This book affected me deeply, and would make an excellent choice for book clubs, because you will want to talk about it afterwards. On a personal note, I have worked in a place that enables me to say everything Rosemary’s brother says is absolutely and unfortunately true. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4/5

Published by Plume, an imprint of New American Library, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2013

Kid Lit Review of “There” by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick

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This book seems like one of those that is only partially for kids, similar to the allegorical tales The Velveteen Rabbit or The Little Prince.

Told almost entirely in question form, a small girl is wondering when she will get there. How will she know? How long will it take? Will she never be silly again? Can she pick daisies? Will there be rainbows? Will she finally know everything – all the secrets? Can she change her mind and go Elsewhere instead?

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Finally, much like Scarlett O’Hara, she decides she has lots to do, and she’ll deal with the issue tomorrow.

The author is also the illustrator, using sweeping two-page paintings to show how wide the world is to this little girl, and perhaps how boundless the future possibilities for her.

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Evaluation: Adults may understand this book even better than the young audience to whom it is directed. But I think with guidance, children will get the message that they, too, have endless opportunities ahead of them.

Rating: 3.5/5

Note: This book won several awards for picture books.

A Neal Porter Book, published by Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings, 2009

Review of “Invisible” by Marni Bates

Since I enjoyed the first two books in this series featuring “nerdy” high school kids who triumph over the popular kids, I was eager to read this one. Although even more predictable than the first two, and with characters not quite as lovable, this one still ought to please tween audiences.

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Jane Smith is the best friend of MacKenzie Wellesley and Corey O’Neal. They used to form a reliable threesome of “Invisibles” (as opposed to the “Notables”) at high school, but now both MacKenzie and Corey have significant others, and Jane is feeling even more invisible than usual.

Instead of fighting back, she only gets more insecure and withdrawn. She starts keeping a secret journal of stories, usually featuring herself and her friends. She would love to write fiction for the school newspaper, but she is only the “grammar girl.” The nasty editor, Lisa Anne Montgomery, agrees to give her a shot at a front page story, and pairs her with the cute but hostile photographer, Scott Fraser, warning Jane this will be her one and only chance so she better come up with a good story.

Quite predictably, one of Jane’s private stories (revealing a bit too much about her best friends), ends up in Lisa’s hands, and makes the front page of the newspaper. Chaos ensues, and making things right will require Jane to take a huge risk to fight not only for the friends she loves, but for herself.

Discussion: Bates adds a nice mix of humor to this story. For example, when Jane gets detention, she thinks:

Detention is nothing like The Breakfast Club. I sat down in my hard plastic chair hoping there would be some group bonding, maybe a little dancing, a few heart-to-heart moments set to eighties music. John Hughes shouldn’t have given me such high expectations.”

Jane’s boss at her part-time job at the bookstore, Mrs. Blake, also adds comic relief as an endearingly quirky character.

But this book is actually “darker” (if you could call any of them dark) than the other stories. And the mistake Jane made could have had some horrible consequences, although of course, it all worked out. But I think, for that reason, this book would be good to read and discuss along with teens. There are plenty of issues that arise, like peer pressure, pre-judging others, the importance of parental support, and understanding the consequences of your actions, that could be debated.

Evaluation: This is a cute story with a lot of potential for “lessons” and discussion.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation, 2013

Review of “Play Dead” by Anne Frasier

This is Book One in a new detective series featuring homicide detectives Elise Sandburg and David Gould. It is set in Savannah, where an interesting mix of voodoo, magic, and kudzu adds a rich atmosphere to the plot – indeed, Savannah itself can definitely be considered a “character” in this series.

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The story begins in the morgue, where some bodies are discovered of people who are not actually dead; rather, they have been paralyzed by the toxin TTX, or Tetrodotoxin. TTX is a naturally occurring poison in some fish that is sometimes used by people to get high from the proximity to death… It is also occasionally used to induce zombie-like obedience. [You can read about so-called "zombie powder" on this science site.]

Elise, 31, was abandoned in a cemetery as an infant and subsequently adopted. It is widely rumored her real father was Jackson Sweet, a well-known local rootworker, or conjurer. These workers in folk magic use mixtures of roots, herbs and other substances to cast spells. The concoctions, called a mojo, are put together into a “mojo bag.” While Elise had an interest in such things as a young girl because of her rumored ancestry, she gave it up after a particularly bad result occurred that she associated with a mojo she had prepared.

Now, she is the single mom of Audrey, age 13, and getting used to a new partner at work, David, a former FBI agent from Cleveland. David keeps a lot to himself; clearly he is leading a tortured existence, but no one on the Savannah force knows much about him.

But if author Anne Frasier is known for anything, it is her skill at romance novels, and you can bet there is a reluctant attraction between Elise and David.

Evaluation: I only have first-hand knowledge of Frasier’s writing as Theresa Weir, from her excellent memoir, The Orchard. She did not disappoint at all with this mystery. Her character development of the two troubled main protagonists is excellent, and I definitely intend to continue with this series and see what develops between David and Elise.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Thomas & Mercer, 2013

Review of “The Madonna and The Starship by James Morrow

James Morrow writes very entertaining Kurt-Vonnegut-esque type dark comedies employing a lot of satire, especially of the religious variety.

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This latest book takes place in the 1950’s and centers on protagonist Kurt Jastrow, an aspiring dramatist who earns a living as a pulp-fiction science fiction writer. Currently he is head writer for a schlocky tri-weekly science fiction adventure series, “Brock Barton and His Rocket Rangers.” He also stars in a ten-minute epilogue at the end of each installment, “Uncle Wonder’s Attic,” in which he guides a young kid through a scientific experiment suggested by that week’s Brock Barton episode.

Jastrow’s mediocre existence is jolted when he gets a message from two blue lobster-like creatures from the planet Qualimosa. They announce they are coming to see him because they love his program, and want to present him with the “Zorningorg Prize”. They also intend to exterminate the pockets of irrationality throughout the universe, which means destroying all viewers of another program on the same network, a weekly religious series “Not By Bread Alone.”

Jastrow, along with the religious program’s writer/producer and babe Connie Osborne, conspire to come up with a satirical script that will convince the Qualimosans that “Not By Bread Alone” is actually exposing the illogic of religion rather than valorizing it. They write a script called “The Madonna and The Starship,” which is very amusing, and they succeed in saving the Earth.

The book has lots of funny bits, such as this one:

Connie: “Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that these crustaceans are exactly what they say they are. Somewhere beyond our solar system lies a planet of logical positivists. … I hope your Qualimosans aren’t typical of alien races. What could be more boring than a galaxy run by Bertrand Russell?”

And then there is the need to placate the sponsors’ during the airing of “The Madonna and The Starship,” resulting in this scene (that results in a sharp uptake in sales for these products):

Jesus: “Eat these measures of Sugar Corn Pops … for they are my body.”

Brock: “You know, Jesus, the great thing about Sugar Corn Pops is that it’s got the sweenenin’ already on it….”

Jesus: ‘Most impressive,’ Jesus replied, methodically distributing eight mugs of warm, chocolate-flavored beverage. ‘Drink this Ovaltine, for it is my blood.’”

There is also a bit of a surprise twist to the ending, so that even non-atheists will be pleased.

Evaluation: If you love satire and aren’t offended by writing that makes gentle fun of religion, this short book has many laugh-out-loud moments. Morrow has won a number of awards for his work, and is worth getting to know. (My two personal favorites are This Is The Way the World Ends, 1985, and Towing Jehovah, 1994.)

Rating: 3/5

Published by Tachyon Publications, 2014

Review of “The Remedy for Love” by Bill Roorbach

This is a deeply moving, powerful story that explores love and intimacy in the face of loneliness, fear and loss. It begins at the onset of a huge blizzard in Maine. Eric, a 34-year old lawyer separated from his wife Alison (at her initiative), helps a young homeless-looking woman get her groceries to her cabin in the woods, and then the two of them get stuck there as the storm worsens.

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The woman, Danielle, 28, is thin, unkempt, and bruised; clearly she is frightened of Eric and keeps telling him her husband Jimmy will be back any moment. Eric has no wish to take advantage of Danielle even as he knows Jimmy couldn’t get home if he tried, no more than Eric can get out. So Eric and Danielle try to make the best of the situation – each in their own way. Over the course of their confinement, a strange and wonderful intimacy develops between them. It turns out they each need rescuing, and they come up with an unusual way to make it happen.

Discussion: There is some beautifully crafted and evocative writing in this book. When Eric looks out from the cabin at the falling snow:

…gazing long, [he] admired the birches bowed in fair arcs on the far bank, balsam firs like court ladies in tiered dresses, green emerging only darkly from the strange humps where whole jungles of alder ought to be.”

And how perfectly illuminating when Eric contemplates what went wrong with his marriage, thinking about how he and Alison started to argue about the minutest factual things:

…these two people who deeply agreed on everything getting as hot over details of their orthodoxy as the old protestant pastors, nuanced positions breaking the church of their romance into splinters and then splinters of splinters, sharp things to be deployed at any time.”

Or this stunning passage, when Eric begins to notice Danielle’s odd appeal:

Something startling in the shapes her clavicles made, not that he was looking. She’d startled him all day with her strange, retractable beauty, like a cat’s claws.”

Evaluation: This is a lovely book. I was reminded a great deal of Tom McNeal’s To Be Sung Underwater. The ending here is much more uplifting, but the adult exploration of the nature of love is similar. I definitely want to read the books he has written previously. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Algonquin Books, 2014

Review of “The Doubt Factory” by Paolo Bacigalupi

This is a story that reads for all the world like a horrible dystopia, but is based on facts that are all too real. Bacigalupi credits the 2008 article by Michelle Nijhuis, called “The Doubt Makers” for the inspiration of the story, and for much of the non-fiction content. In essence, Nijhuis exposes how businesses systematically cast doubt on scientific studies that might interfere with their profit-making enterprises, allowing many dangerous commodities to stay on the market long after they should have been banned.

[This process still goes on, of course. As scientist Seth Darling, author of a new book on climate change, writes, in spite of an overwhelming consensus among scientists that our planet is warming and that we are primarily to blame, mainstream news outlets still provide substantial airtime to skeptics. He observes: “Because the mass media have propped up a false debate, the general public is understandably confused.” Many of these so-called skeptics are actually paid for their "testimony," and it is this manipulation that is the focus of Bacigalupi's novel.]

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The author does a good job of making a weaving a compelling plot out of this disturbing practice. He creates a group of talented teenagers, each of whom has experienced a death in his or her family because of unsafe products that should not have been allowed to stay on the market. Calling themselves “2.0” and led by Moses Cruz, they are working together to try to stop further risks to public health. They have targeted the biggest enabling PR firm, Banks Strategy Partners. Simon Banks and his business partner George Saamsi help put together reports, testimony, and controversy for companies with potentially lethal merchandise, in order to delay punitive government action. The 2.0 group wants to convince Alix, Simon’s daughter, to help them get into her father’s records so they can (hopefully) interest the media. It is not an easy job: Alix has no idea what her dad really does, but she loves him, and has a hard time believing he would help companies put so many lives at risk for the sake of greed.

And Alix isn’t the only one needing convincing. “Status quo is easy to sell,” one of the 2.0 group says. “You can’t con someone who doesn’t want to be conned, and you can’t wake up someone who doesn’t want to wake up.”

But Alix is drawn to Moses, and also wants to know what the truth is about her father. What she doesn’t realize is that the power and money behind these corporations could threaten her life, as well as the lives of others in the group.

Bacigalupi previously tackled the nefarious side of corporate greed in his story for middle graders, Zombie Baseball Beatdown, but that book ended on a more upbeat (and unfortunately more unrealistic) note than this book for older readers.

Evaluation: Bacigalupi successfully integrates his info-dumping into an interesting and suspenseful scenario. He is a consistently intelligent and compassionate writer.

In addition, I really like the fact that this is a very diverse group of teens, but the focus is on what unites them rather than their physical or gender-related differences.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers, a member of the Hachette Book Group, 2014

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