I picked up Penny Dreadfuls from Pioneer Book around Halloween time. I picked it up for a few reasons. It was on the Halloween display, and I kind of love that holiday. It was also a pretty attractive book. Bright red, with razors all over the front. (I have a pretty messed up version of “attractive” around October.) It contained the original story of Sweeney Todd, which I’ve always wanted to read. And it was edited by a man whose last name was Dziemanowicz, which is important because I have seen way too many Homestar Runner cartoons, and HR’s email address is DJmankiewicz@homestarrunner.com.
So anyways, I clearly had to get it. And then it took me forever to get through it because the very first thing they’ve got in there is the original 1818 version of Frankenstein. Tactical blunder. I mean, it’s pretty good—and Ethan was reading the later version at the same time, so it was fun to see what Shelley’s editors made her change—but man, that is not a short story. It is a long story. It is a novel.
This collection claimed to be a whole bunch of terrifying, gory short stories. What it actually is, is a whole bunch of over-the-top, gory-to-the-point-of-just-being-depressing, badly written first attempts from well-known authors who probably wish nobody remembered these particular stories. All of this sandwiched in between two classic novels. One of which was Frankenstein (which I don’t really care for, but I understand why it’s a classic), and the other of which was Sweeney Todd (which I absolutely loved, but I understand why people haven’t read it in forever. Plot holes, everywhere. No character development at all. Still a great ride.)
Don’t waste your time on this book. Read Frankenstein if you want, and read Sweeney Todd if you haven’t, but please for the love of every author who’s ever published something terrible just to make their next paycheck, don’t immortalize all this garbage in between. ♦
Brown Girl Dreaming is an autobiographical poetry collection by Jacqueline Woodson. Written at about a middle-grade level, the book follows her early childhood experiences, and how she came to love writing.
This book is simple and beautiful. It explores what it’s like to be a child, to not really understand your parents’ decisions, and what it was like to be a Black girl—in both the North and South United States—during the sixties. It also talks about friendship, family, and self-exploration.
I would recommend this book to anyone, especially young Black girls who love to write. ♦
Okay. First of all, I should probably clarify something.
I’m not reading a book a day, guys. I’ve been publishing one book review every day for the past week or so, because I finally kicked my butt into gear and started blogging about the books I’ve been reading for the past few months. Maybe I can blame my toddler, and claim he’s taking all of my spare time. Maybe I can blame my brother’s death, and claim I’ve been dealing with crippling grief. Or maybe I should just admit that I forgot (again) that I had a blog.
At any rate, the book-a-day posts should only continue for the next 14 books (give or take.) I won’t be insulted at all if you don’t read them. (Like I would be insulted normally.)
Esperanza Rising is a great book. It’s written by Pam Muñoz Ryan, and apparently she based it loosely on a grandmother or something. It’s a darn good book. That’s probably why it’s won some awards: the Pura Belpré Award for Writing, and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards for Book for Older Children. If you want to be precise.
The story is about a girl named Esperanza, who lives in Mexico in the 1930s. After her father dies, her no-good uncles try to take the ranch (and Esperanza’s mother), so what’s left of the family flees to California, makes it through immigration (legally or illegally—I’m still not sure,) and finds a low-paying job picking produce. The rest of the book is about Esperanza getting rid of her spoiled, childish attitudes and coming to terms with the world around her, good and bad.
It’s beautifully written, culturally eye-opening, and it’s a great coming-of-age story. I think it’s in my top 5 favorite books of all time right now. So go read it. ♦
Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, by Harry Kemelman, is a classic mystery story. I picked up a copy at the used bookstore because we were reading it for book club. Of course, I didn’t finish it in time. And I had something else scheduled for that day. But hey—I’m one step closer to actually going to book club. This is progress, right?
I don’t think this would be a classic if it weren’t for the strong Jewish flavor. Don’t get me wrong—Kemelman writes a pretty good mystery. There are twists and turns, and all that. But most of the book is Jewish culture, with a mystery to solve. Did I learn something about Jewish culture? Absolutely. Was it a good mystery? Meh. It was about as good as any of Agatha Christie’s lesser-known works.
If you really like cozy mysteries, or if you want some good Jewish fiction, go for it. But if you’re looking for a good mystery, go with something else. ♦
I don’t read a lot of Mormon fiction, because—let’s be honest here—it’s pretty cheesy. For some reason, Mormon authors have a really hard time plugging their religion into any story-line or character without bearing fervent testimony that they know this church is true. (Usually with the phrase “every fiber of my being” somewhere in there.) And while there’s a time and place for testimony, some random paragraph in the middle of your adventure/romance story probably isn’t it.
I digress. The point is, Psalm & Selah was not cheesy, and I was pleasantly surprised. Not only was I pleasantly surprised by the appropriate use of Mormon culture, I was also impressed with the quality of writing.
Psalm & Selah, by Mark Bennion, is a poetry collection based on the author’s readings of the Book of Mormon. And while most Mormon authors would probably use the medium to talk about how much the scriptures mean to them, Bennion uses the scriptures to inspire poems from the perspective of the characters in them. And he’s a very good poet.
He writes poems about what it would be like to leave Jerusalem and wander in the wilderness for years. He writes what it would feel like to be the prophet’s “wicked” brother. He writes from the perspective of women who only show up for a verse or two, and has profound insights into what it might be like to be the only person in town who believes in God. And he is more concerned with the poetic aspect with preaching, which makes the poetry much more genuine.
If you haven’t read the Book of Mormon, you probably won’t understand most of the references in this book. But if you have read the Book of Mormon—regardless of whether you found any spiritual quality in it—you should read this collection. It’s one of the better poetry collections I’ve ever stumbled upon. And it’s flat-out the best Mormon fiction I’ve ever read. ♦
The Trespassers, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, was a thrift-store impulse buy.
First of all, I can’t just bypass the fact that at some point in human history, two grown adults looked at their precious baby and decided that “Zilpha” was going to be the word that best described her.
Aside from the name of the author, this was a great book. It has a lot of the same suspense as The Turn of the Screw, but with a much better ending. And it’s written on a middle-grade reading level (I think), so it’s a really fast read.
But it’s not just a fast read. It’s got some really good character development, realistic kids and adults (you rarely get both in the same book, I’ve found), and what might be the most realistic and down-to-earth treatment of special needs I’ve ever seen. I say it’s realistic because the narrator’s younger brother is… different. And that’s about the only way he’s ever described. His behavior suggests he might be autistic, but he might also just be a little odd. You don’t ever really know, because the main character doesn’t really know.
Oh, and also, said brother may or may not be able to see ghosts. You never really find out. The story is about a brother and sister exploring a “haunted” house, then meeting the new family who’s moved in. And then the new kid who lives there starts acting really weird, and they have to figure out why.
I would recommend this to anybody who enjoys/enjoyed Goosebumps, but wants something a little more well-constructed. ♦
Silk, by Alessandro Baricco, is kind of a toss-up for me. I read the book because I’m trying to read a book from every country, and the author is Italian. And the entire book was beautifully crafted.
The book is about a silkworm merchant who’s slowly falling in love—silently and very poetically—with a Japanese woman who’s never even spoken to him. And all the while, his wife stands by, seeing him fall away from her. It’s incredibly symbolic, easy to read, and simply beautiful.
The reason it’s a toss-up is because, almost all of the way through the book, there’s this random three-page episode of pornographic sex. It’s not just that there’s sexual content—it’s that it goes from 0 to 60 in about 2 paragraphs. And I’m really not comfortable with graphic sex in anything I’m reading.
So I really don’t know whether to recommend the book or not. I guess if you think I’m a prude by the end of this article, go for it. And if you don’t want to walk into someone else’s bedroom, then pass on it. ♦