What I Read In September: 13 Books and Then Some

Ahoy there, readers and spies. I’ve got a list for you, today, instead of a proper review. It was a busy month.  I moved into a new apartment, agonized over which books to bring to said apartment, and spent half the month without much internet access.  Maybe it was the stress of relocating that had me reading up a storm.  More likely, it was the lack of Tumblr and Facebook to distract me over breakfast.

Anyway, over at my blog I entertained the notion of listing what I read in September, only to find that this would be a more daunting task than I expected.  I read a lot of books last month!  Some of them I’ve already reviewed here, but I’m afraid others might get lost in the shuffle.  So here’s a (fairly) complete run-down on what I read, what I started, and what I hope to finish soon.  Thoughts?  Suggestions?  Do you think I should maybe get outside more often?  Possibly.  Though I did read some of these out under the first changing leaves.

What I Read In September:

Daughter Of The Forest by Juliette Marillier

A stunning, complex, magical, and heartbreaking re-telling of The Wild Swans fairytale.  Daughter Of The Forest is set in 9th century Ireland, and is the first book in Marillier’s Sevenwaters series.  I thought it was a wonderful story with great historical detail and lovely descriptions.  It also wrenched my heart into a hundred brittle pieces.  In a good way, I promise.  You can read my full review of the book here.

Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

A lively Middle Grade novel from the author of Rooftoppers, starring a brave and wild heroine who is forced to leave her home in Zimbabwe for a stuffy English boarding school.  Rundell’s writing was still magical, though I still like Rooftoppers better.  You can read my review here.

Girl Defective by Simmone Howell

I had no idea what to expect with this one, which is a good thing, because Girl Defective rather defies expectations and generalizations.  Set in a wacky Australian record store, this was a YA novel that I think a lot of adults would enjoy, too.  I got really into the character development and the general vibe of Howell’s writing, even though the plot was hard to pin down exactly.  I’ll just say there’s a reason it’s not quite called Girl Detective.  Highly recommended to fans of good realistic coming-of-age stories.  Also recommended to the sort of people who hang out at record stores and bewail the death of vinyl.  I reviewed this one, too.

Jackaby by William Ritter

This one was hard to review.  (But I tried my best.)  I had a fabulous time reading about Abigail and Jackaby’s adventures as investigators of supernatural murders in 19th century New England.  Jackaby satisfied my desires for both banshees and witty banter.  At the same time, the characterization and plot occasionally veered too closely towards obviously well-known literature and/or pop culture.  Still recommended for anyone who likes their mysteries to be macabre, takes their suspects otherworldly, and prefers detectives who are more than a little zany.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

This collection of Roxane Gay’s essays, musings, and rants is pretty much everything I love about this fascinating modern age of information.  I waste a lot of time reading literary reviews and criticism of under-representation on various  internet wormholes.  It’s how I learn what’s going on, and the hours of scrolling scrolling scrolling through Tumblr have made me much more aware of how my own privilege and environment have made me predisposed to selfishness.  It’s how I remember to try and look past myself and recognize what’s troubling people I might never meet in real life.  But that method involves a lot of scrolling past cyclical arguments and senseless trolling.  So glory be to the publishing powers on high that Roxane Gay has compiled a whole book full of her interesting, moving, important, and often hilarious thoughts.  She is everything I like best about the bloggy-type world.  Bad Feminist is super easy reading because her style is so convivial, but it actually contains a whole battalion of hard truths ready to rain down wake-up calls on the casual page turner.  Nothing terribly new for Twitter-ers or Tumblr-scrollers, but an enjoyable book which should be thrown at any head which appears to be buried in the sand.

Keep The Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

Click the photo to read my post which includes the recipe for baked apples with custard.

George Orwell’s strange novel was my “classic”-ish book for the month.  I appreciated Keep The Aspidistra Flying more than I would say that I enjoyed it.  The protagonist was frustrating and the setting was bleak.  But Orwell is very talented at relaying a character’s thought process without suggesting that we should agree with the hapless fellow.  I couldn’t hide my smile when Gordon griped inwardly about the more difficult patrons at the bookshop where he works.  This was a sharp look at class and ambition in 1930s England. While the characters’ philosophies put my teeth on edge more than once, I found it to be a smart, wry, and insightful novel.  If I see an aspidistra anytime soon, I’ll probably either laugh to myself or try to throw the plant out a window. I needed to eat a lot of dessert while I read this one, so my embellished thoughts on Keep The Aspidistra Flying can be found in this blog post, which is also a recipe for baked apples with custard.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater (#3 in The Raven Cycle)

I read the ARC of this the very same day I found it on the shelf at my store.  All other reading projects were put the hell on hold.  I’m not going to post my review of Blue Lily, Lily Blue until the book is released, but I can assure all followers of Blue Sargent and the Aglionby Boys that this third installment is a fine addition to The Raven Cycle.  I so very rarely keep up with a series anymore, not because I lose interest in extended story lines but simply because I don’t have the time when so many books for work or review demand my attention.  Maggie Stiefvater’s series is a big fat exception to that rule.  The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves brought our magnificent ensemble cast closer to finding the sleeping legendary Welsh king Glendower, with many a heart-wrenching twist and agonizing turn along the way.  Get ready for even more complications, my friends.  Prepare to tear at your hear and gnash your teeth in distress.  This volume might be the weakest of the three, when I consider it seriously, but the character development continues to be unparalleled even as the complicated plot gets a little muddled.  Oh, and the witticisms.  The banter.  The references to myths and legend and proper tea brewing techniques!  Check back for my full review nearer to the book’s release on October 21st.

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

I had trouble reviewing this book, too. (You can witness my attempts here.)  Nominated for the National Book Award for Young Readers, 100 Sideways Miles is most likely a humorously self-conscious work of realistic YA literature, but it could also be a perplexing story about fate and possible aliens.  No matter what, Andrew Smith has written some passages of freakin’ excellent dialogue between his teenaged characters.  The use of symbolism and wacky facts about the earth’s velocity were nearly as memorable as the central friendship, too.

A Book Of Scottish Verse selected by R. L. Mackie

a book of scottish verseI re-read about 3/4 of the poems in this little old book the night before results came in about the Referendum for Scottish Independence.  I bought the collection when I visited Scotland in the spring, and found it very comforting this month when I was afraid that my chest would explode from all the conflicting emotions.  My poor roommate had to hear to me declaiming William Dunbar’s 15th century verse in early-modern Scots, but she was very patient because I was in distress.  I may or may not have forced her to listen to James Hogg’s “Bonnie Kilmenie gaed up the glen” in its entirety, too.  55% of me – a slim majority – is happy that Scotland is staying within the Union for now, but reading these poems again was a great reminder that my favorite country in all the world needs more freedom and respect than it currently receives.  The more romantic, poetic, dramatic 45% of me is heartbroken.

Dark Spell by Gill Abruthnott

I wanted to read some of the books which have been nominated for the Scottish Children’s Book Award, and a history-infused contemporary fantasy set amongst witches in St Andrews seemed like the right place to start!  I thought the writing and plot were only slightly above average in Dark Spell, but the lovingly-described setting was like a powerful healing potion for my constant homesickness.  My full review of this book is here.

Poisoned Apples: Poems For You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann

This was a collection of much more modern poetry than the late-Medieval stuff I was weeping over earlier in the month.  Heppermann bends fairy-tale expectations and society’s demands into thorny new images and broken reflections.  She writes about wicked queens and desperate girls in castles and high school bathrooms and all the fraught places in between. Some of these poems deal very closely with issues like eating disorders and self harm, and while it’s all handled very artfully I did feel my innards twisting up a little at some of the anorexia images.  I’d rather spend my time thinking about fairy tales instead of remembering my old nemesis the eating disorder, but it took a little while for me to shake off the paralyzing mental dust that settled after a few of Heppermann’s poems.  I really recommend this collection to teenaged girls who need a charm for strength or sincerity in the shape of frank and powerful verses, but read with caution if you’ve struggled with difficult issues that aren’t quite banished for good!

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

This book has been thrown at me so many times by my room-mate.  Now that we live under the same roof, have one meager between our bedrooms, and share all those glorious bookcases, it was high time I relented.  Sunshine is a smart urban fantasy with vampires and cinnamon rolls.  The future is weird.  The vampires are scary.  The bakery is wonderful.  McKinley’s writing was almost always incredibly strong, though I think this book could have been about 100 pages shorter and held my attention a little better.  I’m going to try to write a more in-depth review within the next week, as I only finished reading Sunshine two days ago and need to dwell on it a little more.  It stands out amongst a tired genre, that’s for sure, even though it was written several years ago.  Did you know that it was possible to get bent out of shape about baked goods, even while blood’s a-splatterin’ and curses are flying fast?  It’s possible and it’s fun.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The final book I read this month!  And what a way to end September.  Station Eleven deserves more thought than I’ve given it so far, and I don’t want to go into too much detail since lots of people I know are interested in reading it.  A Shakespeare company and Symphony travels around North America, performing to settlements twenty years after a terrible pandemic destroys life as we know it.  The non-linear narrative draws us into several different characters’ lives pre- and post- collapse.  Art, fame, immortality, and the nostalgia for a past which can never be regained are torn apart and put back together as characters alter others’ lives in big or little ways.  The beginning and end of Station Eleven kept my attention better than the middle bit, which focused on the End Of The World stuff too closely while still straining my willingness to suspend disbelief.  But the idea of a Shakespeare company wandering the wreckage is really good. I hope that Station Eleven gets a lot of attention for its lifelike characters and the level-headed writing behind those big ideas.  This is another one that I will try to review sooner rather than later.

Books I started in September, which I aim to finish ASAP:

Heap House by Edward Carey

I’m having trouble getting into this book, even though it’s exactly the sort of glum story I usually enjoy.  I think that I was too frustrated with England when I started reading it, around the time of Scotland’s referendum debates.  I’ll definitely give Heap House another try before it comes out, because I certainly expect to be in the mood for some dry Dickensian humor and Gothic misfortune sometime soon.

The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore

It usually takes me over a week to read a book of nonfiction, since I tend to read a novel or two at the same time to balance out my brain.  I’m about halfway through The Other Wes Moore.  It’s a fascinating book about two boys who grew up in similar circumstances, but one went on to be a White House Fellow and Rhodes scholar while the other went to jail for murder.  The details about each boy’s life make the narrative go quickly, but it’s the portrait of what life was like for young black men in Baltimore (and other cities) at the time which makes this such a universally important book.  I’ll probably finish reading it next week.  October’s nonfiction book will, naturally, be about witches!

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

I read half of this when I visited my house one Sunday.  I had just finished reading Blue Lily, Lily Blue and didn’t want to start another fantasy or YA book for fear of finding it disappointing in comparison.  Wandering up to my old bedroom, which is now the library where the 80% of my books live, I picked this up at random.  Maugham was a good way to waste a few hours, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to get back to it.

All The Wrong Questions # 3: Shouldn’t You Be In School? by Lemony Snicket

That dratted Lemony Snicket!  Can’t he ask the right questions for once in his mysterious life??  This third installment of our young apprentice’s attempts to find answers in an unfathomable town just came out on September 30th, but I read a few chapters of it when I got to work early and saw them sitting in a tantalizing stack by the register.  I guess I’ll have to buy it to find out why school isn’t the right place to be.  (Hint: School is rarely the right place to be when there’s something nefarious afoot.)

So, what’s the final count?  Thirteen books and some change.  Let’s hope that the momentum continues!  But now that I have internet back, it’s time to catch up on what my favorite bloggers have been reading.

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Book Review: Deadweather And Sunrise (The Chronicles of Egg #1)

 

Alas and alack! My pile of Pirate Books To Tackle has grown so monstrous that I should have avoided starting a new series on top of everything. Usually I gravitate towards stand-alone books in my reading ventures, because life is too damn short. But several stalwart and fervent young readers of the 9-12 persuasion have recommended Geoff Rodkey’s series to me – especially on Pirate Fridays when I make a point to wear stripes and my little spyglass – so I figured it was high time I set off at full sail into The Chronicles Of Egg. There are three books currently available in the series, but I started at the beginning with Deadweather And Sunrise. Because even though I don’t like to read by no landlubberly rules, it’s sometimes best to start at the beginning. That’s just how stories work.

Here’s what awaited me in the New Lands, where lies the smelly island Deadweather – and other islands with varying stink-levels – sit surrounded by the Blue Sea:

Egbert is the youngest of three siblings, the only children on Deadweather island. His father runs the uglyfruit plantation with a keen eye for business and a thumping for anyone not pulling their weight. Most of the other employees are pirates who have come back from the sea missing large chunks of their anatomy. Egbert’s brother and sister (Adonis and Venus… I do not jest) also enjoy a spot o’ violence now and then. Meaning that they cause their little brother as much pain as possible whenever they get the chance. But, with a newfound enthusiasm for booklearnin’ and a begrudging acceptance of constant bruises, our earnest narrator isn’t ready to confine himself to growing old on Deadweather just yet. The island is a beloved rendez-vous for pirates, ruffians, and criminals who celebrate the unwashed life. It’s dirty and violent and overshadowed by a tall, sooty volcano. When Egbert’s father comes back from the volcano with something secret on his mind, the family hitches a pirate ship to Sunrise Island to have a chat with their lawyer.

The streets of Sunrise Island are clean and shining; the people are clean; and there’s this new thing called “tourism” gaining a lot of popularity. Egbert is shocked when his family is invited to stay with the wealthy Pembroke family at their beautiful estate. Mr. Pembroke is head of the mining business on the island, and we all know that money controls everything, so he’s pretty much The Man. Of course, Egbert quickly falls in love with Mr. Pembroke’s daughter, Millicent, who is spoiled but friendly and beats him soundly at croquet. It’s too bad that some dire aerodynamic circumstances remove Egg’s family from the surface of the map and spoil their fun.

After the Pembrokes’ hospitality runs suspiciously dry, Egg finds himself tossed about on the seas of adventure. Our much put-upon hero rapidly changes from a battered farmer’s son to a stowaway; a pirate captive; a castaway; and a treasure hunter. He has unpleasant encounters with mean little rich kids and dreadful pirates all in the space of one day. However, there are also moments of surprising kindness from other seemingly-scary pirate captains (and even scarier, but prettier, wealthy lasses). Egg makes friends with a kid who first tries to bite him to death, and finds out that he, himself, can be quite courageous when the need arises.

Egg’s pride and survival are at stake, so in this first volume of his adventures he has to roll with whatever punches life can throw at him. There’s treachery all over the place, and beautiful Sunrise might not be so different from the odious Deadweather island after all.

I had a rollicking good time reading Deadweather and Sunrise, mostly because it offered exactly what I expected. I don’t want to suggest that the plot was overly predictable, because it wasn’t. I had no idea what path the story would follow, and would have been surprised by the twists and turns even if I had some preconceived notions. I just mean to say that I wanted to read something funny and swashbuckling, with one adventure after another. I expected pirate jargon and a general dislike of bathtime. Cannon fire. Sand in uncomfortable places. Scurvy knaves robbing the rich and keeping it for themselves, because they’re scurvy knaves, damnit. I was satisfied on all accounts, with several instances of uproarious guffawing thrown in for good measure.

Geoff Rodkey can write an adventure story with a pace so fast you’ll get whiplash, while still laying on the gross-out details and snappy banter. The interactions between characters were lively and Egg’s internal narration was smart and sincere. It’s not a realistic story in the slightest, but that’s just fine. I appreciated the snide little nods to how thoroughly ridiculous industries like tourism and environmental exploitation can be, and I hope that the issue of mistreating indigenous people is developed further in the following volumes. That particular problem came off a little old-fashioned in Deadweather and Sunrise, but I have high hopes for the two other books which I haven’t yet had a chance to read. In this volume, the filthy rich and the grubby poor can be equally villainous and heroic, so that’s one edifying literary spyglass into the world’s weirdness, at least. That, and don’t believe everything a grown up tells you. Trust neither pirates nor parents.

With the imaginary setting and the jumble of 18th and 19th century details, the piles of misfortune which heaped themselves upon our fearless young fella took some Snicket-esque turns for the melodramatic now and then. Mix the Baudelaire siblings’ magnetism for misfortune with Jim Hawkins’ seafaring misadventures, and you’ve got The Chronicles Of Egg. You know what? I say huzzah to that! Sometimes you just want to get lost in the tumultuous seas of perilous adventures.

Deadweather and Sunrise was a thrilling, cutthroat adventure with enough sword-crossing to keep me itching for a fight. It was easy to root for Egg and his friends, so I’m pleased to know that the rest of the series was well underway before I started reading. The eleven year old lassie who first recommended The Chronicles of Egg to me was right to say that I would like it even though there were some gross bits, because the salty; smoky; sooty; smelly atmosphere was just the right setting for my favorite kind of pirate action. Humor of the light-hearted and gallows varieties combined for an entertaining yarn which would be perfect summer vacation reading material. Now go storm the shores of your local bookshop and set sail!

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 9 and up

Book Review of File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents by Lemony Snicket

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8+

Some of you may not know this, but underneath all the fairytale infatuations and my ambitions of piracy, I’m a Voracious, Fervently Devoted admirer of Mr. Lemony Snicket’s life and work. (Actually, you all probably worked that one out for yourselves. I’ve been quite vocal about my enthusiasm for The Basic Eight and Why We Broke Up, penned by his “representative” Daniel Handler.) When I was slogging through the dreary days of middle-school, A Series Of Unfortunate Events instilled within me an appreciation for all sorts of gothic literature and a keen eye for mysterious circumstances. Those books were also largely responsible for my inherent distrust of adults. It’s the sort of series you can re-read time and time again; and I find that every time I return to it I recognize some wonderfully distressing references to literature and life which had flown right over my young head, despite the fact that I was tall and gangly for my age.

Nowadays I get to be that cryptic adult in the bookshop who recommends mysterious literary material to intrepid young browsers. How convenient for my secret plans that Lemony Snicket did not stop writing after his first series brought so many readers to the brink of despair. Who Could That Be At This Hour? and When Did You See Her Last? are high on my list of recommended reading. With those books on the shelf, I’m rarely at a loss for something thrilling and hilarious to sneak into the hands of a diminutive detective-to-be.

Snicket’s newer series, All The Wrong Questions, chronicles the earlier life of young Lemony: his baffling past as a volunteer in that secret society which loomed in the periphery of the Baudelaires’ lives. The books are written in a style inspired by noir detective fiction. Think hard-boiled private eyes on their own in a hostile world; enigmatic women and shady men in hats all triple-crossing our embittered hero as well as each other. There are cunning nods to the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett scattered everywhere, alongside a myriad of references to classic fiction and highly recommended kids’ books.

The series traces a big, complex mystery through a town called Stain’d-By-The-Sea, where commerce is rapidly dying and something nefarious lurks just out of sight by every corner, bakery, and rocking chair shop. Lemony Snicket and his chaperone – an amusingly inept adult member of the secret society – are meant to solve a mystery involving a stolen statue, a desperate young woman, an aging actress, and a coffee shop containing a player-piano rather than baristas. It’s hard to find answers, though, when everyone insists upon asking all the wrong questions. In the end, the children have to figure things out on their own while most adults waste time and, as usual, completely ignore common sense.

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents is sort of a supplemental volume in the series. It takes place in Stain’d-By-The-Sea sometime during the course of Snicket’s investigations, but does not necessarily need to be read at one particular point in the series’ chronology. Rather than adding to the larger mystery, these thirteen suspicious incidents appear in a collection of reported cases and separate conclusions. Each short chapter stands on its own. Sub File One contains the thirteen mysteries themselves, relayed to us in Snicket’s distinctive voice. For those of us who loved the deadpan and ironic – though somewhat formulaic – humor in A Series Of Unfortunate Events, these new books are not a disappointment. (Aside from the obvious disappointments, like how justice and root beer floats aren’t served nearly as often as they should be.) Sub File B contains the conclusions. When you’re done reading the book, count the conclusions. There are more than thirteen. Suspicious indeed! Each self-contained whodunits is somewhere between five and twenty pages long; perfect for puzzling over a story or six before bed, or while waiting for one’s parent to finish swearing at the hardware store cashier.

Characters from All The Wrong Questions filter in and out of the short cases, because in a good noir piece the locals and strangers are just as responsible for a mysterious atmosphere as the shadowy setting itself. The frustrating Mitchum family fails to prevent crimes all over the place. Moxie puts her reporting skills to use and helps Snicket now and then. Dashiel Qwerty, the punk-rock librarian, seems to know just the right book for any occasion. Jake, at the diner, serves banana waffles right when they’re needed most. Even though Snicket’s character is just a kid when he narrates the book, his descriptions of people are as cynical and case-hardened as any full grown P.I. in a black and white feature.

“Think of something noble and true, like a librarian or a a good crisp apple or a sweater that doesn’t itch, and then think of the opposite, and that’s Stew Mitchum. He was a rat and a nuisance and many other troublesome words I knew, the sort of person who might dump a whole shaker on your head if you asked him to pass the salt.”

We also encounter a long list of new characters, as most mysteries require culprits; and victims; and red herrings; and wrong turns. I particularly liked Jackie, the young mechanic who is never referred to by a gendered pronoun (and – huzzah – this is not at all self-congratulatory), and two friends named Kevin and Florence who share pirate books and also possibly secrets. Some mysterious strangers remain mysterious. Some seemingly-benign individuals turn out to be quite sinister, and some suspicious figures are actually just trying to get on with their regular routine. I think Dashiel Qwerty articulates the general theme of the collection quite well in the very last mystery, entitled “Figure In Fog.”

” ‘Look at it this way, Snicket,’ Qwerty said as the fog kept rolling across the grass. ‘To a stranger in town, such as yourself, Stain’d-by-the-Sea is full of suspicious incidents. But to the people of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, you’re a suspicious incident yourself. You arrived out of the blue and live in a hotel suite with an adult who seems to be neither your parent nor your guardian. You ask a lot of questions about anything and everything, and anyone and everyone has questions about you. There are rumors you’re part of a secret organization. There are rumors you are in charge of an important investigation. But nobody really seems to have the foggiest notion what you’re up to.’ “

I think this is an interesting observation to apply to any mystery story, hard-boiled or otherwise. As usual, Lemony Snicket makes more astute observations while writing serialized children’s fiction than many writers for grown-ups do in their whole oeuvre. These solve-it-yourself stories are great fun and very accessible to young readers, of course. They remind me of the Meg Mackintosh mysteries I loved as a child, in which I would always try to figure out the solution before the big reveal. But though I’m no longer quite youthful enough to start an apprenticeship like Snicket’s, my age never once prevented me from appreciating every one of the Suspicious Incidents. The mysteries themselves might be fairly simplistic, but the sharp, dry humor in nearly each description and every line of dialogue has no age limit in its appeal.

I hope that Snicket’s fans of fewer years might follow this series by hunting down some noir detective fiction for themselves, with the assistance of their devoted local booksellers and vigilant librarians. As for myself, and any other nearly-adult readers returning to Mr. Snicket’s world with an air of nostalgia, there are plenty of subtle riddles and literary clues to mull over all morning as one’s oatmeal congeals and the newspaper goes unread. (Another reason to wish we were eating breakfast at Jake’s diner.)

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents is a highly entertaining casebook, but it’s also a clever and worthwhile addition to the chronicles of Stain’d-by-the-Sea and the intricate world Lemony Snicket shares with us all. The plot might not be so detailed, and the ironic twists and turns might get repetitive after some time, but the formula works and the book concludes before it descends into a tiresome exercise. In a town where everyone has a trick up their sinister sleeves – where even sled races and pet lizards aren’t as wholesome as they might seem – we can trust young Lemony Snicket to doggedly pursue answers to whatever suspicious incidents waltz his way, even if those answers just unearth more questions and an awful lot of dry seaweed.

Valentine’s Day Special: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

source: goodreads

Daniel Handler, please be my Valentine.  There’s not a single damn thing you’ve written that I don’t love.  This includes the new picture book 29 Myths On The Swinster Pharmacy, which was authored by some suspicious bloke named Lemony Snicket. (Snicket writes an awful lot like Handler.)  But today is Valentine’s Day, so here is a love story which implodes spectacularly before Valentine’s Day even comes around.  Talk about good timing!  But honestly, I don’t like romantic stories very much, so this is the best I could do upon remembering the date.  February 14th?  So that explains the sudden, raging success of Junie B Jones And The Mushy Gushy Valentine at my shop.  (If I had to give a more thematic recommendation, that would be the one.  Can’t go wrong with Junie B, but Daniel Handler is even better.)

Min Green and Ed Slaterton aren’t necessarily made for each other, but they fall in love and stumble around through a passionate high school romance until – quelle surprise! – they break up.  The book begins at the end of their story: Min is returning a box of relics from their relationship, and what we read is her long letter to Ed that goes with it.  Maira Kalman’s illustrations of each object – items like a file which meant to be baked into a cake, a weird spiky seed-pod thing, and a meaningful box of matches – are simple and interesting and make the reading process rather a joy.  Ed’s the basketball team co-captain.  His friends are jerks and he goes through life with the blinders of popular-senior-boy success blocking out a great deal of his surroundings.  Min has long been part of those surroundings, obsessed with old movies and drinking fancy coffee with her artsy friends.  But, she insists, she’s not actually artsy. She’s not good at art.  She doesn’t make good grades or like beer very much.  Yet, somehow, she and Ed start talking at a party. They start to date, stalk a possible movie star, insult each other’s friends, behave explicitly in parks, tell each other secrets, give each other weird gifts, and eventually break up.  Min’s bitter, tender, stream-of-consciousness letter is like one very long Tumblr quote, in the best of ways.  Open up to any page and you’ll come across something like this:

“And it wasn’t just us. It wasn’t just that we were high school, me a junior and you a senior, with our clothes all wrong for restaurants like this, too bright and too rumpled and too zippered and too stained and too slapdash and awkward and stretched and trendy and desperate and casual and unsure and baggy and sweaty and sporty and wrong.”

or this

“There are so many movies like this, where you thought you were smarter than the screen but the director was smarter than you, of course he’s the one, of course it was a dream, of course she’s dead, of course, it’s hidden right there, of course it’s the truth and you in your seat have failed to notice in the dark.”

It’s a surprisingly heartfelt story, and I don’t have much of a heart with which to feel.

Why We Broke Up is probably the most mainstream of Daniel Handler’s books: it distills all the sublime dialogue and weird adolescent energy so prevalent in The Basic Eight into something more realistic. In The Basic Eight, the teenaged characters are extravagant, and their lives go totally nuts as the plot gets weirder and weirder.  (Read my review of The Basic Eight here.  It was my favorite book I read in 2013.)   The opposite seems to be the case in Why We Broke Up.  Stylistically, the books are similar.  You’ll recognize your favorite weird Handler/Snicket-isms sprinkled throughout.  Big words.  Pretentious drinks.  Vintage pop culture.  Interesting food.  But Min, Ed, and the other characters just feel so vividly real, so tragically similar to the people you encounter on a daily basis – just with better one-liners.  Even the minor characters are excellent, and perfectly evoke the awkward balance teenagers almost always fail to strike between love, family, and friends.  And, since they’re minor characters in Daniel Handler’s capable hands, you know they’ll be witty and judgmental and possess obscure talents.  In this particular book, though, teenagers are distinctly teenagers even when they’re making igloos out of cubed eggs for an aging film star’s secret birthday party.

My favorite part of the book?  They steal a sugar dispenser at one point, to make a cake which requires stolen sugar.  That’s just one of the Various Fictional Details which make Why We Broke Up an indespensable part of the Handler/Snicket universe I love so much.  Adults in this book are almost entirely useless, and that never fails to make me happy.  We’ve got kids navigating the treacherous world of romantic nonsense guided only by their disobedient hearts and terrible judgement.  We’ve got nerdy references and sordid affairs. If you want more nerdy references and sordid affairs, check out the Why We Broke Up Project, in which many of my favorite writers and some hapless readers share their own tales of heartbreak, woe, and bad music.  Isn’t that what this holiday is all about?  So happy Valentine’s Day, readers.  Don’t screw it up.

Star Ratings for Why We Broke Up

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4  stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up

High School Books Part III: The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

I loved this book so much I took selfies with it.

Star Ratings

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age recommendation: 16+

The Basic Eight was definitely my favorite of the three high school books I read last week.  In fact, I think it might be my favorite novel set in a high school of all time.  And I really like books about young people behaving badly, so that’s saying quite a lot.  I know that July’s not over yet, but I’d venture to say that this was the top book of my month.

The premise of The Basic Eight was exactly the sort of thing I love: a bitterly funny tale about the delusions of youth and shocking acts of violence, told with some really excellent narrative sarcasm.  Flannery Culp is part of a rather self-obsessed group of pretentious and creative friends – eight of them in total – who think that their dinner parties are the social events of a lifetime and who have a “Grand Opera Breakfast Club” which meets in the French classroom.  Their lifestyle, which starts out as merely decadent, soon spirals out of control when feelings of romantic betrayal seize control of our young narrator and she turns into a “murderess.”  The story is told through Flannery’s edited diary entries, which she prefaces and annotates from jail, in order to produce her own version of events as she tries to win the public’s sympathy; dispel rumors of satanic influence; and paint herself as the literary heroine of her own perceived drama.  Right from the novel’s beginning, we know that Flannery is in jail for killing a classmate, so the tension is carried by a truly magnificent cast of characters and a twisting plot.  What begins as a sharp satire of coming-of-age stories soon builds into a nightmarish storm of violence, wealth, and absurdity.  The fact that the novel’s major event is revealed straight away does not ruin the book’s momentum, either.  On the contrary, I found that the format lulled me into a false sense of security, and near the end of the book I actually slammed the book on the table and shouted, “WHAT?!?”.  The plot isn’t necessarily realistic, and the characters are  larger than life, but I was completely hooked by The Basic Eight a few pages in and couldn’t get it out of my head.

Some readers will recognize Handler’s sarcastic style reminiscent of his pseudonym Lemony Snicket from the children’s series A Series of Unfortunate Events, and I think that  The Basic Eight, as his first novel, was where he tested out some of his stylistic techniques.  A study guide follows some sections of Flannery’s diary, with a list of vocabulary words and questions like: “Is it rude to bring an uninvited guest to a diner party? Should you be excused if it’s your boyfriend? What if he’s dumb?”.  This trick in one of the more obvious instances in which Handler points out the ridiculous trends in high school, and books about high school, and the way the world treats high schoolers in general.  When the characters are involved in the play Othello, too, Flannery immediately points out the parallels between the play and the events in her own life in her commentary.  So many YA books hide literary allusions and parallels to whatever the characters have to study in their English class in the course of the narrative, and I love how Daniel Handler laughs at that trend by making it absurdly obvious.  The book is pretty scornful of how adults handle teenage troubles, and includes some absolutely laughable adults who try to analyze the group’s actions after the crime in an obvious parody of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and best-selling child psychologists.  I love it when books show how out of touch figures of authority can be with young people, and even though these characters are unrealistically inept the real-life associations are pretty on point.  The Basic Eight might be about a group of larger-than-life figures in an extreme situation, but it also deals with some very real problems that teenagers face in high school: feeling threatened by teachers, not knowing whom to trust, trying to keep up appearances when your whole world is falling apart.  Handler faces these issues with an arsenal of wit and cynicism, and I wish I had read this book when I was in high school myself.

I will only fail at explaining how funny this book was despite the grim subject, because I’m not a funny enough person to do the humor any justice at all.  Let me just say that I could not stop laughing.  I laughed when Flan and Natasha couldn’t find tomato juice so they made Bloody Marys with marinara sauce to cure their hangovers.  I laughed when the entire school had to fill out an anonymous survey about their relationship with Satan.  You will laugh at the egotistical group of friends but you’ll also laugh with them and around them and near them.  The San Francisco Chronicle compared the book to an inside joke, and even though I always felt one step behind the antics of the Basic Eight, I loved trying to catch up with the group of friends who I now feel like I know personally.  You will laugh even when blood is flying and kids are getting sick on way too much absinthe.  Handler’s sense of humor may not be for everyone, but I can’t get enough of his sardonic wit and clever style.

I would recommend The Basic Eight to so many people.  In fact, I’ve already shouted at three of my friends to go and buy it immediately.  I picked it up because in an interview Handler said that invented the name Lemony Snicket while he was researching the extreme conservative organizations who liked to get involved in “satanic panic.”  I’ve been a fan of his children’s books and his infectiously funny style of writing for over a decade, so I figured it was time to dive into the source. (I also recommend Adverbs, which is the only other of Handler’s adult novels which I’ve read.)  If you liked the self-aware and hilarious style of A Series Of Unfortunate Events but want a more grown-up story, buy this book.  I would also recommend The Basic Eight to high school teachers all over the country, because it actually serves as a good example of all sorts of literary themes and techniques. Flannery is the quintessential unreliable narrater: she’s completely untrustworthy but she also doesn’t trust her readers.  There are allusions to Shakespeare, opera, poetry, and classic literature all over the text.  The narrative structure in the novel is creative and intricate; Flannery’s editorial touches to her diary entries fade in and out depending on what she’s revealing, and there are moments when its difficult to separate her wiser (but incarcerated) later self from the earnest voice with which she writes as the events unfold. The structure keeps you on your toes and merits serious consideration, and I bet I’ll catch onto things I missed entirely when I read the book again.

If high school teachers were to assign The Basic Eight as summer reading, I think that it would have a generally positive reception from the students, and the fact that their parents might take offense at the subject matter just makes Handler’s observations all the more suitable.  At times the book was witty and charming, I could compare it to John Green’s Paper Towns, but then there are other sections which contain all the confused boredom and rage of Brett Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero.  I heartily recommend it to fans of both genres.  I would recommend it to anyone who thought they were the only classy and intelligent person in their own school, because reading it gave me a chance to laugh at what a self-involved moron I had been in high school.  Really, if you want to read about high school this summer, just read this book.  I can’t wait to read it again.