Not Suitable for Family Viewing, Vicki Grant

HarperTrophyCanada, 2009, 289 pages (soft cover)

I’d never heard of this book or its author, but it’s one of those random library picks that turned out to be an entertaining surprise. Not to mention it’s Canadian, and it made me LOL. I really love books that  literally make me laugh out loud.

Before I get to the meat and potatoes here, can we pause for a moment to communally groan at this cover? As a result I was forced to find creative ways to hold my book while reading on the bus….

That’s not really where the groans stopped for this book, either. The first-person present-tense story is told from the perspective of Robin, the oft-forgotten daughter of Oprah-like TV mega-personality, Mimi Schwartz. (Want to know the name of Mimi’s show? You, You, and Mimi. Groan.) In the shadow of her famous mother, Robin feels like a neglected, fat slob with no motivation to do anything. Then one day she finds a little clue to her mother’s pre-fame days, which is just intriguing enough for Robin to take off for a tiny po-dunk village to do some detective work. This is both where the real eye-rolling as well as nail biting started for me. Along her way Robin meets a guy, who slowly but surely (somehow) becomes a love interest [spoiler alert! highlight to read!] even after she punches him in the face upon their first meeting, and later proceeds to scream – yes, literally scream – every time she sees him thereafter. Obviously this leads to his finding her very quirky, funny, and sexy- sexy. Teeny-bopper romance aside – and I had to gag my way through plenty of that – there’s actually a pretty twisty mystery hidden in these pages. I didn’t realize how much red herring is strategically placed throughout the book, until I’d finished it and had it on my mind the next couple days. Coming off of Paper Townsthis one had a lot more to offer in terms of difficulty actually cracking the case.

I’m glad I was compelled enough to keep on through the first half of this book, because the second half proved well worth it. In the first half I wondered why it was an award winner; now I see why. Layered beneath the typical teen beach romance is actually a strong commentary about how appearances aren’t what they seem.


Where Things Come Back, John Corey Whaley

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2012, 228 (paperback)

Randomly drawn to this book by some awards stickers and a cover reminiscent of The Fault in Our Stars, I was not let down. While I can say I REALLY enjoyed this book, I’ll admit I was thoroughly confused by the first fifty to one-hundred pages. After that things didn’t get much better, but at least by that time I was accustomed to the unique way Whaley chose to write this. Where Things Come Back is a complex series of plots and points of view which, at first, have nothing to do with each other. The magic is how they all become interwoven at the end.

At the middle of this story we have the very interesting (and oddly named) Cullen Witter. Cullen is seventeen, lives in a small Arkansas town, and is best friends with his high school’s Mr. Popular, Lucas Cader. This is a bit funny, because Cullen is in no way popular himself, coming across as sort of impassive about the world around him. There are flashbacks to times when he was appropriately engaged with the world, but those were mostly before his cousin OD’d, and his kind and intelligent brother, Gabriel, went missing.

Laid within Cullen’s story are tidbits from others: a misguided missionary; the beautiful town legend who’s returned after a failed shot-gun marriage; a washed-up bird watcher who thinks he’s spotted an extinct woodpecker, alive and well and out of hiding. To Cullen’s great dismay, everyone in town goes nuts about the bird, while the whereabouts of his brother gets swept aside. New relationships and old friendships are tested, some with good outcomes, others not so much. Religious themes reign, as each of the characters struggles with some question regarding what to believe. The book ends on a simultaneously sad and hopeful note.

Things I Liked: Each small-town character was so fleshed-out and real, there for a purpose even if they were only present for one page of the book. While Gabriel was painted as this perfect teenager with no discernible flaws, it seemed to fit with how the remaining family would view the lost member. This book was also funny! Where Things Come Back is so layered and rich with detail, it hit me right in the gooey centre of my book-lovin’ heart: it made me laugh, think, and sigh deeply. I don’t think I’ll ever quite fit all the threads of this book together unless I read it a second time. (We’ll see.)

Why I Was Confused: Especially having gone into this novel with no recommendations, never having heard about it, and judging it by the awards it’s won, I can definitively say I had waffling expectations. This book still surprised me. During those first fifty pages I was tempted to quit. After finishing the book, I was tempted to go right back to the front cover and start over. Things I didn’t like – for example, the characters’ so-weird-they-must-be-cool names and Cullen’s propensity as a first-person narrator to jump into third and then back again – took some getting used to. In the end, however, I found the writing and the story itself compelling and beautifully quirky. See? Even my complaints can’t stay negative.

The verdict? This is a very good, very weird book. If you like good, weird YA books, I recommend you give it a try.

Ella Minnow Pea, Mark Dunn

Anchor, 2002, 208 pages

I’ve found the major criticism people have with this short epistolary novel is that, while it has a  serious message, that gets somewhat lost in its outrageousness. I counter with this: was Animal Farm not the least bit silly? Did we not laugh disbelievingly, simultaneously horrified, at what those demon pigs were getting up to? It may have been allegorical, but I also don’t think it’s an accident that some of the most memorable stories out there come to us in comedic form.

Mark Dunn’s “Novel in Letters” is a brief exploration of censorship and freedom of speech. Ella and her cousin Tassie live in a small island nation called Nollop, named after the man supposedly behind the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” This point of pride, together with Nollop’s inability to adopt proper technologies and move into the 21st century, means the practice of letter-writing is the main form of communication. It is through these letters that the entire plot is told.

The story begins in the centre of town, where an epitaph displaying the famed sentence was placed a hundred years ago. One by one, alphabetical tiles start falling. Instead of attributing this simple problem to old glue, the town leaders take it as a beyond-the-grave request from their nation’s hero: that everyone stop using these letters altogether. Harsh penalties are enforced as people inevitably slip up and use them anyway. More and more people are being shunned, ratted out, and kicked off the island every day. Nollop quickly devolves into a totalitarian police state, and it’s soon up to Ella and a few others to find a way to turn things around.

What I find most fascinating about this book is how difficult it must have been to write. As letters fall from the epitaph, they also disappear from the novel itself. Even though it may be silly, this is one novel that English-lovers everywhere will enjoy. If I were a high-school English teacher, this would be a fun book to teach. Sure, there may be other novels of the same theme which might be deemed ‘worthier’ of your time (1984, perhaps?), but as a jumping-off point and for sheer linguistic entertainment, Ella Minnow Pea can’t be overlooked.

The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling: Part One

Oh my goodness J.K. Rowling has a new book!!!!!!! is the only proper way to begin this piece. I actually held out for about two days before I bought it, partly hoping that it could be a good item for my Christmas list (ha! like I would’ve lasted that long), and partly trying to be one of those people who doesn’t spend too much money on books for a little while. Well it was a noble attempt, right? Actually, I had also heard how expensive it was (like $26!) and maybe part of me was rebelling the unnecessarily high cost. But a little trip to good ole Costco solved that problem. I mean $19.99 is so much better than $26, right?

And moving on. So Rowling’s new book. I’ve just finished the first five chapters and, I’ve gotta say, and with a great deal of pain: I’m not sure I’d keep reading it if it wasn’t written by her. There! I’ve said it. I’ve defiled the provider of Harry Potter! I will now have to repent in some way…perhaps with finishing the rest of her book.

Granted it has only been five chapters. If I can say one good thing, it is that I think the plot will go somewhere. Maybe a second good thing would be that none of her characters seem to follow any cliched role I can think of. But now for the bad things. Well first I guess would be that it’s an adult book. I knew this going in of course, but was wholly unprepared for the reality. So far there’s been the occasional swear (sidenote – seeing Rowling swear in her writing is pretty distracting and off-putting, though I wouldn’t normally have a problem with it if it were any other author) and these very awkward sexual comments that just seem so out of place. Like describing somebody’s ugly boobs. It’s so weird I don’t even know how to comment on it. Okay let’s move on again, please!

So bad point number two would be that it’s boring. This guy dies and townsfolk of all kinds are reacting to it. Twenty-six pages in and I’ve lost track of the myriad of characters already introduced, and really not interested in their small-town politics. Like I mentioned, it kind of seems like it could perhaps become interesting later on, but maybe that’s too much to wish for.

My next beef is the tone of the novel. Everything so far is set up to be incredibly depressing. This guy is repulsed by this woman he’s sleeping with; A teenager has a bad relationship with his father; People rejoice in the death of a town leader; This guy dies and leaves his four children fatherless! J.K. Rowling what have you done! What about the Weasleys and Dumbledore and…and…and THIS IS CRAZY! MOVING ON!

Lastly, I’m disappointed with just about everything. Rowling has had my greatest praise and I suppose the bar was so high, the fall has been catastrophic. She has every right to branch out into new areas, but it’s as if a completely different author has written this. Every once in a while it seems like there’s a typo, but I’m not sure if maybe it’s just a stupid way of saying something. There’s also some oddly-phrased lines like “She was perennially acquiver to detect condescension…” (pg 16). I just don’t know what to make of it anymore! Also, the book cover is ugly.

Well I’ve done it. My first scathing review, and on the J.K. Rowling of all people. But there is a chance at redemption  Perhaps Part Two won’t be as painful to write. Now back to my chore.