The Tiger Rising

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Remember The Mailbox? I loved it, except that the dialog seemed a little forced and awkward. The Tiger Rising, by Kate DiCamillo, solves that problem. It’s even better than The Mailbox in nearly every way, and addresses a lot of the same themes.

The Tiger Rising is a story about a boy named Rob, who finds a tiger in the woods. Well, sort of. He finds a tiger in a cage in the woods. And while he and his new friend try to figure out what to do with it, they have to face their own inner demons and learn to deal with grief and betrayal like (or better than) adults.

It’s a short book, but it’s beautifully written, and I think everyone should read it. DiCamillo has an incredible gift for pointing out truths that should have been obvious, and painting them in brilliant colors. If you haven’t read it, you should. ♦

Magic or Madness

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I picked up a copy of Magic or Madness, by Justine Larbalestier, while I was in high school. I think I probably just liked the cover art at the time, but it turned out to be a good read. Having just re-read it, I still think it’s a good read.

Magic or Madness is a story about an Australian girl named Reason, so named because her grandma believed so fervently in magic that she did terrible things. Reason’s mother, Serafina, ran away and became a firm defender of all things logic and no things magic. Magic isn’t real, she taught Reason, but evil Grandma Esmeralda thinks it is—so we need to stay away from her.

Long and short of it is, magic is real. And once Reason figures that out, she has to figure out just how crazy each member of her family is. Grandma Esmeralda is certainly not trustworthy. But maybe a little more trustworthy than Serafina made her out to be. But, of course, Serafina can’t be trusted either, because she doesn’t realize that magic is a real thing. Also because she’s in a loony bin. There’s that, too.

Complicating things, Reason goes out the back door in Sydney, Australia one day and finds herself smack-dab in the middle of New York City, freezing her butt off, with no way home. And someone’s following her.

The only complaint I have about this book is that I don’t own the sequel yet. And I need to get a few more books off my TBR shelf before I dare make that purchase. But if you like fantasy, or just want to learn a little more about Australia or America (depending where you live currently), pick it up. It’s great reading. ♦

Something Wicked This Way Comes

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Ray Bradbury is a freaking genius.

Most people know Bradbury through Fahrenheit 451, which is well-known because it’s required reading for a lot of high school classes. For good reason, of course—it’s well written, it makes a very good point, and the point it makes is for literature and against censorship; it’s popular among English teachers.

But let me be honest: Fahrenheit 451 is my least favorite of anything I’ve ever read by Bradbury. It’s not a bad book, by any means. It’s a great book. The problem is that I had already read Bradbury’s portrayals of Halloween before I read it. And if Bradbury is good at writing, he is amazing at Halloween.

I mean, the storyline is good. But when Ray Bradbury tells you it was October, he doesn’t just tell you the month. He tells you what the leaves smell like, what color the dirt on your shoelaces is, and the sound of your mother calling you home for dinner while you race your friend to the front porch. He’s a poet—he just writes it in prose. And when someone that good at writing decides to write horror, it’s amazing and terrifying all at once.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is a story about two 13-year-old boys, a middle-aged man, and an evil carnival. That’s basically it; it’s a classic good-versus-evil story. But the real difference is that Bradbury makes the story about humanity, youth, fear, growing old, and breathing just for the joy of filling your lungs. He doesn’t tell you that the good guys win; he tells you why light is stronger than dark.

This is literally the best book I have ever read. If you haven’t read it yet this October, get out there and buy a copy. ♦

Reaching for Sun

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I happily stumbled upon this book while browsing the poetry section at Pioneer Book. (I do their social media – I spend a lot of time looking for good Instagrammable book covers.) Anyways, this one was fairly instagrammable, but it also looked like something I would enjoy, so I just bought it instead of taking a picture.

The book is called Reaching for Sun, and I’ve never heard of it before, or the author (Tracie Vaughn Zimmer.) It’s about a 7th grader surviving 7th grade, finding a friend, and coming of age. Also dealing with cerebral palsy, her family, and a crush on a boy. And school bullies. So basically, it’s a pretty normal look at 7th grade, with a few specifics thrown in.

Also, it’s written entirely in poetry, which means it’s more emotion-driven than plot-driven.

I loved this book. It deals with growing up in a way that doesn’t claim to provide all the answers, it deals with romance in a totally age-appropriate way, it deals with life tragedies in a way that acknowledges the pain and doesn’t pretend to be able to solve everything, and it deals with disabilities in a very real, non-condescending way. It shows you a snippet of life, but it doesn’t preach at you.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a light read with some soul. Especially anyone in 7th grade. ♦

The Turn of the Screw

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The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James, is a classic horror novel. For some reason, I always thought it was a book about torture, similar to Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.” I think I was taking the title a little too literally… and morbidly.

At any rate, I picked up a copy while wandering at Pioneer, read the back cover, and discovered that it was actually a ghost story – and it looked like a good one! Awesome! I ignored the 80’s illustration on the cover and bought the book anyway.

The Turn of the Screw turned out to be a very suspenseful, fast-paced horror story about a governess who starts seeing strangers around the house. Then she finds out the strangers used to work at the house… until they died. Then she realizes that the children can also see the ghosts, but they don’t want her to know that, which means the children actually want the ghosts to haunt them. And the children keep doing weird things to arrange private meetings with the ghosts (and without their governess.) Complicating all of this, the governess was instructed that she was never to communicate with her employer, under any circumstances. Also, she couldn’t really tell him anyway, because the kids won’t admit they see anything, so everyone would just call her crazy.

The book has a good balance of suspense, horror, and what-the-crap-is-going-on. It also does a good job of keeping the question open: is she haunted, or is she crazy?

SPOILER ALERT – here’s the problem: the “plot twist” at the end is that you never find out whether she’s haunted or crazy. That’s it. That’s the only plot twist. I mean, I was reading this, thinking, “Oh, man. Maybe the ghosts are gonna get the kids. Maybe the ghosts are good, and that’s why the kids want them. Maybe the kids killed the ghosts, and that’s why the ghosts are haunting them. Maybe the kids are gonna help the ghosts kill the governess. Maybe this other maid lady is dead, too, but nobody’s telling the governess. Maybe- maybe- maybe”…. I had a million maybes. And the problem is that all of my maybes were more interesting than the actual end of the book. Maybe I read too much weird horror. And maybe I just expect too much from a plot twist. But seriously – I could rewrite the last three pages of this book about 7 times, and come up with 7 better ways to end the book.

It’s kind of like riding a roller coaster slowly to the very top of the theme park, looking down over the precipice, feeling your breath catch in your throat, and then having the ride stop and the operator telling you to get out. Not because the roller coaster was broken – just because the entire ride was the suspense. You never actually get to experience the rest of the roller coaster.

I would recommend reading the book I’m considering writing based on this book. Once I figure out which ending to put in it. Sheesh. I understand why it’s popular – but the ending is a drag. ♦

The Art of Racing in the Rain

the art of racing in the rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, is a bestseller. So when I wandered through a thrift shop in St. George and found it in their books section for only twenty-five cents, I bought it immediately. Even if I don’t like it, I thought, I’ll just give it to Pioneer Book. It’s only a twenty-five cent risk.

I knew nothing about this book going into it, except that there was a dog on the front cover and the book is popular. I expected some sappy story about a dog doing great things and then dying, and assumed it would be a tear-jerker.

Technically, all of those things were true. But what this book actually is, is more of a philosophical musing on humanity generally, told through the eyes of an outsider (the dog Enzo.) It’s the story of Denny, his wife’s death, and his terrible struggle with his no-good-dirty-rotten-in-laws for custody of his daughter Zoë.  It’s about life, love, death, and the refusal to give up on the things that matter most.

This is a beautiful book. I was not, however, moved to tears by it. I knew I probably should be. And since I weep openly at Disney movies, I was very surprised that I didn’t end up with at least a little water in my eyes. But I think what happened was this: somehow, I didn’t connect with the characters quite enough. I knew it was fiction. Maybe it was because the main character was a dog. Or maybe it’s because so much of the book is musings about death, the afterlife, and ethics generally – and I’ve been brought up in a very spiritual environment that frequently address these as everyday topics. But somehow, I found myself saying, “This book has a lot of soul,” without feeling like it really touched mine.

Also, here’s a content warning: there’s a lot of foul language in this book. Like, at least half a dozen F-bombs. (I wasn’t really counting.) Also some nudey scenes (told from a dog’s perspective, these are less erotic than you’d think), death, sexual assault, and some generally very heavy content. In a nutshell, this book is rated-R. If you want a lighter version, I just learned today that there’s a “for young readers” version (with a puppy on the front cover, which I think is hilarious.) If you’re fine with the content, however, it’s a great book.

I give this book 4 stars. It’s well-written, tells a beautiful story, and leaves you with a lot of hope for humanity. I can’t give it 5 stars, though, because there was still something missing. I don’t know what it is – it just didn’t connect with me like it should have. ♦

Heartbeat

heartbeatI picked up Heartbeat shortly after reading Love That Dog… because I Loved That Dog. Sharon Creech is an excellent writer for any age, and especially for middle-grade readers.

Heartbeat is about a girl who likes to run (and feel her heartbeat). She has to deal with some typical and some less-than-typical teenage stress: a moody friend, a track coach who seems to think that anyone who doesn’t want to join the track team must be destined for failure, a grandparent who keeps forgetting where he is, and a mom who’s going to have a baby. But she’s got a good support team at home, and she seems to know who she is, even though she sometimes has a hard time expressing it.

There’s not much to say, really. It’s a good, short read, written in free verse poetry, and it does a good job of just exploring life. Funny how poetry does that. I didn’t like it quite as much as Love That Dog – but I would still recommend it to just about anyone. ♦