The Boy Who Could See Demons, by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

The Boy Who Could See DemonsI found this book while entering some orders for my new library; someone else had picked it out but the blurb sounded interesting enough so I went ahead and put it on hold. When it came in, I was like, I put a hold on what now?, but the cover and the jacket copy were enough to make me put it at the top of my lunch-time reading pile.

This is actually kind of a perfect break-time read, as the chapters are fairly short and provide lots of places to stop when your 15 minutes are up and also the whole book is short so you don’t have time to forget things. On the other hand, it was kind of a terrible break-time read for me, as it suffered from Heart-Shaped Box Syndrome — I put it down at a really super exciting point and came back to find everything gone topsy-turvy and a little bit awful.

First, the good, which is basically the first 90 percent or whatever of the novel. The story is told in diary form and jumps back and forth between two narrators. The first is Alex, the titular boy who has an invisible or imaginary demon “friend” called Ruen who is alternately nice and creepy and horrifying and knows just a little bit too much about things that Alex shouldn’t. The second is Anya, a psychiatrist called in by Alex’s social worker to help him out with his demon issues as well as the issues arising from his mother’s attempted suicide, again.

Alex’s diary entries are pretty fantastically written; he’s a precocious ten-year-old kid and it shows but the writing isn’t nearly as affected as other “kid-written” books I’ve read. I also fell really hard for Alex, who wears suits and ties and just wants a new house for himself and his mom so that they can be happy again. Adorable!

Anya’s narration took longer to get used to, because it’s full of doctor-talk and fancy words and is really stiff and formal, but of course it’s supposed to be and the trading off between her story and Alex’s cuts down on the annoyance factor there. I didn’t get as drawn in to Anya’s backstory, but she unsurprisingly has some personal experience with a kid like Alex that may or may not be clouding her judgement as a psychiatrist.

It’s got a good premise, it knows all the things I like in a multi-narrator story (multiple perspectives of the same event, information being doled out one tantalizing detail at a time and becoming more important to the rest of the story), and it gets quite suspenseful and exciting.

But then, and I will not say what happens but if you are intuitive this is probably all sorts of spoilers, then a Thing happens and another Thing is revealed and the story takes a turn I did not expect but which could probably be expected by other people and I was like are you kidding me. And then I was like, well, okay, maybe this Thing could be an okay Thing, if it were set up a certain way, but it was not set up that way and therefore I am disappointed. It is a Thing that very much makes sense to the story, but making sense and making me happy are unfortunately two different things!

Recommendation: For people who don’t get all bent out of shape about unexpected Things, pretty much. Or people willing not to read the last few chapters and make up their own ending!

Rating: 8/10

an RIP read

Speaking from Among the Bones, by Alan Bradley

Speaking from Among the BonesIf you’ve been around here for a while, you might know of my love-exasperation relationship with these Flavia de Luce novels. On the one hand, as soon as I see a new one my brain says YOU MUST READ THAT. On the other hand, as soon as I start reading I am like, seriously, what is wrong with this town? Why do people keep dying horrible deaths here? Why is an 11-year-old solving these crimes as well as or better than the real detectives? Why has no one grounded Flavia for life for all the rules and trusts and things she breaks?

But then on my third hand, which I keep for such occasions as this, I love Flavia because once you get her out of her detective brain she is a sweet if overly precocious kid who just wants to be more or less normal. This installment of her adventures starts with an attempt by her to prove scientifically that she is actually a part of her family, since her two older sisters often “inform” her that she is a reluctantly adopted feral child raised by gorillas or whatever, because sisters are mean (yes, yes we are).

Of course, the story can’t stop there because this is a mystery series, and so Flavia gets caught up in first the disentombment at her church of its namesake, St. Tancred, and then quickly after that the investigation into why a missing church organist was found super-dead atop said tomb. Seriously, people, get out of Bishop’s Lacey, it is dangerous.

I quite liked the return to mystery from the get-go, as opposed to the half-mystery of the second and fourth novels (somehow I sense I will be upset again in the sixth…), and I very much liked how this mystery introduced us to a lot of new characters in Bishop’s Lacey and environs, including a strange man locked in a tower who thinks Flavia (who has of course broken in to see him) is her mother. Although there have been way too many murders for Flavia to solve lately, the real thrust of this series, is, I think, Flavia solving those mysteries of childhood — who are these people who live in my town, how do they know me and my parents, is it possible that my parents were real people before they were my parents?

And that last line, oh my heavens. Alan Bradley, you know how to make me come back for more. But you’d better deliver!

Recommendation: I’m back on board with this series, which I really hope doesn’t become an every-other-novel thing. But seriously, if nothing else go read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie because delightful.

Rating: 8/10

The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende

The Neverending StoryOh, The Neverending Story. I watched the movie version probably several times as a short person (read: child), but it’s one of those movies that I’m incapable of remembering, so mostly what I knew going into this book was that there was a kid and a dragon thing and Atreyu and something about the kid going into the book?

At first it was kind of cool, knowing just a tiny bit about the book. I was having fun listening to basically a brand-new story, but I also had an idea of where things would go and I could look forward to dragons! I like dragons.

I also like the way Ende writes this story. I am a sucker for a frame story, which is what we’ve got here: our hero, Bastian Balthazar Bux (pronounced like “books” by the audio narrator), steals a book from a similarly alliterative bookshop owner and hides in his school’s attic to read it. Go with it. He starts reading the book, and we are treated to a story about a Childlike Empress and kid hero called Atreyu who goes off on a dangerous quest to save said Empress and also the whole of Fantastica. Frame story? Quest? You know I’m in.

Then the story gets even more interesting, with characters in Bastian’s book seeming to react to things that Bastian says, or seeming to see him via magics, and soon Bastian finds himself written right into the book he’s reading, and then finds himself writing the book, which is absolutely insane and I like it a lot.

Except… once my vague recollection of the movie had been fulfilled by the book, I was basically done, but it turns out that there’s a whole second half to the novel that got made into another movie that I didn’t see. So for those six or seven hours of audio, I was like, seriously, this book isn’t done yet? Is this book done yet? This really is a neverending story, isn’t it?

That’s entirely on me, though, and it’s not to say that the second half of the book isn’t interesting, but it basically repeats Atreyu’s quest plot of the first half with Bastian in the lead role and with more melodrama and self-absorption. From a literary standpoint, this seems really cool. From a listening-at-work standpoint, this seems really boring.

I may try this again at some future date after I have completely forgotten the story again, but in print form this time, because I feel like I missed out on a lot of cool things in the story. The audio was rough for me not just because I got bored halfway through, but because the narration and sound mixing is such that some characters are super loud and some are practically silent, and for the parts I listened to while on a road trip it was basically impossible to hear both sets without causing some sort of accident. If you’ve eyes-read this, what do you think? Is it worth another shot?

Recommendation: For lovers of quests and fairy tales.

Rating: 6/10

Liar and Spy, by Rebecca Stead

Liar and SpyAfter reading When You Reach Me, I had basically decided I was in heart with Rebecca Stead, because, I mean, I love A Wrinkle in Time and so does she and therefore BFF(aeae), right? That’s how it works, I think.

So when I heard about Liar and Spy, I was all, wait, like Harriet the Spy? Swoon! It took forever for the book to even show up at my library, but when it did it was mine and I read it.

And it was pretty okay. I was wrong about the Harriet the Spy connection, at least in that this story never mentions that one once. So, kind of a disappointment. But obviously you can still find similarities between the two, because they’re both about spying kids and ultimately how spying on other people living their lives is not as fun as living your own (spoilers?).

Stead’s story is about Georges, a poor kid with too many letters in his first name whose dad gets downsized and who has to move from an awesome house to a less awesome apartment. On a trip to the laundry room, Georges ends up agreeing to attend a spy club meeting, and from there meets a kid named Safer who is a super-duper master spy ready to teach Georges how it’s done.

There’s spying done, of course, and some intrigue about a mysterious neighbor, but there’s also quite a bit about being a nerd at school and losing a best friend as well. It’s super cute, if a little obvious in places and a little silly in others, just as a good kids book usually is.

Recommendation: For nostalgic adults and precocious kids.

Rating: 7/10

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseI think my in-person book club has contracted “Annoying Child Narrator” disease. Before this book we read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which had an overly precocious child narrator, and before that we read Room, which has a very young narrator who mostly acts his age and is therefore, to me, annoying. The narrator of this book is not really precocious so much as very self-important, and he actually reminded me of Ignatius from A Confederacy of Dunces, which you may recognize as a bad thing.

Soooooooo this was a bit of a long read. I had a feeling it would be, so I read it primarily on a plane, where I would have nothing better to do. On the plus side, it’s not very long page-wise — there are 326 pages, but there are also pictures and weird parts with no actual story on them, so it’s probably more like a 275-page book. On the minus side, I probably understood about half of those pages.

I should probably note that this is sort of kind of a September 11 novel, and my book club did discuss this on said date, and that I have a very limited connection to the events of That Tuesday. I was in high school in Ohio, I didn’t know anyone who knew anyone in New York at the time, and so I didn’t come into this novel with any sort of pre-conceived emotions. I imagine if I had, this might have resonated better. Please tell me if that’s the case!

Okay, so, anyway. This book is about a kid, Oskar, whose dad died at the World Trade Center. His dad was also very into puzzles and setting puzzles for Oskar, and so when Oskar finds a mysterious envelope with a key and a last name on it, he sets off to find the person the key belongs to and solve this final puzzle from his dad. His search takes him alphabetically to all of the households Black in the NYC area, and he meets new and interesting people along the way.

And you know, if this had been the whole novel, I think I would have liked it a lot. I like a good quest, and I like also a probably doomed quest, and for all that I found him a bit pompous, I could empathize a little bit with Oskar and his search for truth.

But there’s also this other part of the novel, which consists of, I think, a letter to Oskar from his grandmother and a diary of some sort written by Oskar’s grandfather. Both of these recount how the two met and married and unmarried in a very very weird set of circumstances, and they’re both really strange in different ways. The letter is written a very straightforward way, with an… explicitness that I would not put to paper for anyone, probably not even in my own personal diary, and especially not in a letter to my grandchild. The diary, on the other hand, is baffling in that it is the notebook of a person who does not talk and so it gets interrupted by pages with just a few words on them (used to ask questions and answer them) and it’s also maybe got some pictures in it, though they’re not clearly part of the diary, and it’s just… it’s weird. Very weird.

Sometimes I don’t mind working for my novels; there are a few books out there that I know I’ll read again just to figure out what the heck was going on (right, Mr. Peanut?). But I am also interested and invested in those novels, and I just don’t feel that way about this one.

However, a lot of my book club people quite enjoyed this book and/or its movie adaptation, so if you’re thinking about reading it, give it a try!

Rating: 6/10

Room, by Emma Donoghue

RoomHey, remember that time I read a book for book club and had nothing to say about it later? Fact: I got to this month’s meeting and someone asked if I liked Room better than the last book we read, and I was like… what book? We read a book last month?

Guys, Room is soooo much more interesting and discussable than whatever that other book was. Perfect book club choice. Highly recommend.

And I would even recommend the book! Several of my club-mates were not thrilled with it, largely because Donoghue chose to make the narrator a five-year-old who knows lots of big words but little proper grammar. I can’t fault them, either; I read through the first fifty pages or so and was like, this is going to get old fast. Five-year-olds definitely do not talk like this. But then — and here, I think, is the secret — I listened to the next hundred pages or so. The woman who voiced Jack, our child protagonist, was amazing, and I found myself recalling that five-year-olds in fact love big words and don’t care about grammar.

I also found myself completely drawn in to the story of Jack and Ma, who share a room called Room that you soon find out is some horrible soundproof shed that Ma was kidnapped to several years ago by some awful guy known to Jack and the reader only as Old Nick. Creepy and gross. Jack has only ever known Room, so he and Ma live in their own little world with their own customs. But there’s an obvious tension between him and Ma when they talk about Room and Outside, and even more so when Ma starts to tell Jack what’s really going on.

I’m not sure if this is a book that can be spoiled, really, but I did find myself constantly wondering what was going to happen next so I’ll let you have that experience if you haven’t already. 🙂 I think it’s safe to say that that tension absolutely does not go away, and that Donoghue’s examination of life and the world from an alien point of view is what made the book so interesting to me. Even if you’ve never been in quite the same situation as Jack, I think anyone can relate to the idea of learning something you can’t unlearn (Santa Claus oh no!) and how dramatically it can change your life.

Recommendation: For those who’d like to know what happens to the victims on all those crime procedurals when they’re not getting rescued.

Rating: 9/10

The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster and Leonard S. Marcus

The Annotated Phantom TollboothI’m sure I’ve mentioned it a million times (most recently), but The Phantom Tollbooth is my favorite book in the history of ever. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s definitely the book I’ve read the most and that I will continue to re-read on an irregular basis until I die. Every time I read it I get a little happier in my heart.

So when this giant annotated edition showed up unexpectedly in the cataloging department, I was like, “MINE GIMME.” And then had to wait several days while it was, you know, cataloged and processed and sent to the library and whatever, I want my book. And then I got it, and I opened it, and I started reading it, and then it was like learning and I fell asleep. Literally. Several times over the course of reading this book.

Which is weird, because I really did like the foreword, in which I learned, among many other things, that Norton Juster was kind of a jerk back in the day and may or may not have created a secret society whose sole purpose was to reject people from said secret society. Which is the sort of awesome thing I would do if I were kind of a jerk. And I quite enjoyed the annotations, most of which were along the lines of “Here’s what this part of the story is based on” and “Here’s what this illustration could have looked like” and “Did you know this really cool etymological fact?” I did not, but now I do!

I think my problem with the annotations, as with any annotated book or commentary-ed DVD, is that it’s difficult for me to do two things at once, e.g. read the story and learn things about it. So I would find myself spending too much time in the margins and forgetting what was going on in the story, or getting lost in the story and having to backtrack to the annotations. But it was totally worth it for the knowledge that some of the weirder characters and places in the story were invented by Juster just to mess with Jules Feiffer, his friend and illustrator. It really makes a lot of sense.

Recommendation: I would definitely not recommend this for your first experience with my beloved Tollbooth, but if you’ve got a reading or two under your belt I think you’ll find a lot to interest you here.

Rating: 8/10

p.s. Happy Pi Day! This seems like a pretty appropriate book to read today, if you haven’t got other plans…