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. πŸ™‚ 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…

The 39 Clues: The Maze of Bones, by Rick Riordan (15 September β€” 16 September)

Well. I picked this book up from the library yesterday because I’m thinking about buying it for my brother for Christmas and I haven’t heard too much about it. And then last night I started reading the first pages, thinking if they were okay I’d get it. And then I read three quarters of it and finished it this morning. So… it’s good.

Amy and Dan Cahill, aged 14 and 11, attend their grandmother’s funeral, sad that she is gone and intimidated by the several hundred people who are also there, most of them family. They aren’t exactly expecting an inheritance, what with all those other family members, but they certainly get one! They are invited to take on a quest comprised of 39 clues, a quest that will allegedly change the fate of the world as we know it. And one that might also kill them, because the other people who take on this quest are ruthless. But they take it, because it would make their grandmother (and their dead parents) proud of them, and they end up hunting down information about Ben Franklin and jumping on a plane to France. And then, in the end [spoiler alert?], they find a second clue!

This, like yesterday’s book, is meant for younger kids, so the plot is pretty much implausible and the pacing is quick. The clues β€” because the first clue only leads to more clues to find the second clue, like, come on, puzzle makers! β€” are all National Treasure-style hidden messages and such (and they’re about Ben Franklin!), and of course Amy and Dan are the ones figuring them out first or best and being chased around by the other, allegedly older and wiser teams. But whatever. It’s fun! I don’t think I’ll read the next book, but I think my little brother will.

Rating: 7/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2008)

See also:
Blogging for a Good Book

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle (11 September β€” 12 September)

A Wrinkle in Time was one of my favorite books as a kid, probably because it has a cool girl protagonist and also a super-smart five-year-old, both of which I wanted to be/have been. πŸ™‚ I re-read it once in undergrad and I remember liking it, but I don’t remember it going by so fast! I think I was also reading lots of the A Series of Unfortunate Events books at the time, so it probably didn’t feel so rushed.

Anyway! Like you don’t know (and if you don’t, you should fix this immediately!), this book is about a girl called Meg Murry who has the hard life of any teenager, plus a little bit: she hates school, she’s constantly picked on and getting in fights, and her dad has disappeared amongst rumors that he’s left his wife for another woman. Fun! Meg doesn’t believe that last one, so when her super-smart little brother, Charles Wallace, introduces her to some crazy old ladies who say they can help get Mr. Murry back, she’s game. But, of course, this adventure requires some space-folding and other-planet-visiting and moral-learning.

Reading it now, I can see some problems with the book: namely, everything seems to happen in the span of a day and there’s no time to digest what’s happening before something else happens. And the moral-learning part is more than a little heavy-handed. But I think it’s perfect younger young adult reading and the images of the book (especially the sameness of everything on Camazotz) have stuck with me since childhood, so that’s a point in L’Engle’s favor.

Rating: 8/10
(Summer Lovin’ Challenge, My Year of Reading Dangerously)

See also:
Library Queue
Rhinoa’s Ramblings

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Bad Beginning, by Lemony Snicket (10 August)

The power was out at our house from Monday afternoon to Tuesday afternoon, which was super-lame, as Scott and I are both rather in love with our computers. And when we’re not on the computer, we’re snuggling in front of the TV. Luckily for us, I had recently put The Bad Beginning on my iPod (a harrowing experience, actually, but it’s all better now!), so we hooked Travis (the iPod) up to Hobbes (our stereo system) and listened for two and a half hours (such a tiny book!).

This was one audiobook experience I really enjoyed! I think it helped that I had already read the book (and also that it’s a fairly simple story), because I didn’t feel like I had to concentrate terribly hard to keep up. Also, it’s narrated by Tim Curry, whom I adore, and the dialogue is actually done by several other voice actors so I wasn’t ever confused as to just who was talking. And there were some excellent ambient sound effects that just drew me even more into the story. It was like a radio play, and very well done. I highly recommend it.

I also highly recommend this book, if you haven’t already read it, and the whole series, really. The Bad Beginning kicks off the story of the Baudelaire children, who quickly become the Baudelaire orphans when their parents die in a fire that also consumes their home. The Baudelaire parents’ wills specify that the children are to be sent to live with their closest (in distance, not relation) relative, which leads them to live with a distant cousin, Count Olaf, on the other side of town. Olaf is terrible to them, but no one will help the children out of their situation and they have to do what they can themselves.

And, as this series is called A Series of Unfortunate Events, I’m sure you can guess that their lives don’t get much easier. In case you had doubts, the narrator (Lemony Snicket) reminds you many times that things are going to go badly and why don’t you just put this book down and go do happy things, which is not quite as entertaining the second time ’round, but is still good for a giggle here and there.

Rating: 8/10
(Summer Lovin’ Challenge)

See also:
Back to Books

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card (7 August β€” 8 August)

I found this book in the adult sci-fi section of my library, even though the back of the book clearly states “for ages 10 and up.” I’m not sure what the librarians are trying to say here. πŸ™‚ Also, the back of the book totally spoiled the end for me, so I suggest not reading that if you can help it.

So. In this story our hero is a young boy, whom we meet when he is six and selected to go to something called Battle School. This turns out to be a place where other small children battle each other in preparation for joining armies and fighting bad guys in the future. The people in charge think that Ender’s going to be their savior in fighting some aliens called buggers, so they isolate him from making friends and push him ridiculously hard. He takes it as much in stride as he can and becomes a pretty good fighter-type.

You’d think that would be the story, really, considering how many pages are spent on it, but the actual story happens after that, and in the span of not very many pages. But if I sum up the actual story, I’ll give it away.

That’s pretty much why I’m giving this book a low score; I was interested in the beginning of the book but all of that plot doesn’t really matter to the end except that it gives Ender some experiences to draw on. And then after that, everything happens really quickly and it’s all kind of weird. I didn’t like the bugger fight, I didn’t care for the side plot with Ender’s siblings, and I was incredibly confused by the Giant’s Drink part at the end. Very very confused. I still don’t get it, though I guess I understand what happened now, after consulting the internets. Meh.

Rating: 6/10

See also:
Library Queue
Trish’s Reading Nook

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster (10 July β€” 11 July)

So back in the day, I was a big nerd. “Just back in the day?”, I hear you saying, and you are right. But! Nonetheless. Big nerd. As part of my nerdiness, I did things like memorize state capitals and dichotomous keys (the latter has not stayed with me, sadly) found in my Childcraft encyclopedia/instructive books set. Did you have such a set? Because these books were awesome. And one of them, the one focused on math, included an excerpt from The Phantom Tollbooth, wherein Milo meets the Dodecahedron. I knew right away (at what, eight years old?) that I needed to find this book immediately. It’s been my favorite children’s book ever since.

For those of you who didn’t have Childcraft and/or were not interested in nerdy books as a child, The Phantom Tollbooth is the story of a kid called Milo who is just bored with life. I’ll let the author explain:

“When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Nothing really interested himβ€”least of all the things that should have.”

One day Milo arrived home, bored, to discover a curious package in his living room. Again, let’s let Juster set the scene:

“Who could possibly have left such an enormous package and such a strange one? For, while it was not quite square, it was definitely not round, and for its size it was larger than almost any other big package of smaller dimension that he’d ever seen.”

And it goes on from there. The package is the titular tollbooth, and Milo drives his toy car past it and into a land where all of our idiomatic expressions are taken literally (e.g. Milo jumps to conclusions about his trip and finds himself jumping to an island called Conclusions from which he must swim back) and there is a bit of a feud between math and language. Milo, with his companions Tock the watchdog (a dog with a clock for a torso) and the Humbug (who has a predilection for the number seventeen that I’ve long since assimilated), finds himself volunteering to end this feud by way of a perilous journey to the Castle in the Air, where the princesses Rhyme and Reason have been imprisoned for far too long.

Basically, it’s an adventure book with a great message for kids (knowledge, all of it, is important) and sly references for the adults reading it to them. The illustrations are cute, too.

Rating: 9/10
(Summer Lovin’ Challenge)

Coraline, by Neil Gaiman (12 February)

Like you haven’t heard about this book already, what with the movie being out and all. The movie is actually the reason I picked up the book, much like Stardust before it, but this time I’d definitely say I prefer the book to the movie. And I rather liked the movie.

Coraline Jones is your average kid: curious, adventurous, and mostly ignored by her parents. On a rainy day when she’d like to be outside but is told to stay inside, her father suggests she get out of his hair and explore their new house. One of the things she finds is a bricked-off door separating her flat from another in the same house. A couple days later, bored and curious, Coraline unlocks the door to find not a wall of bricks, but a hallway that leads right back to her flat. Well, her other flat. In this flat she finds her other mother, who’d really like to be her only mother and also sew buttons into Coraline’s eyes.

Et cetera. It’s a short book, just go read it already!

Why I like the book better: It’s a short book. The movie, at 100 minutes or so, was much longer than it needed to be, and filled that space with extra characters (what useful purpose did Wybie serve?) and and way too much build-up to the button problem, at the expense of its solution. The movie is still cute, though I wish I had seen it in 3-D!

Rating: 8/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2002, Support Your Local Library Challenge)