Halloween Read: “Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero

Meddling kids

A crack team of animated teen detectives, The Blyton Summer Detective Club, solved their last case thirteen years ago.  Though they caught the culprit (a guy in a costume with an evil scheme), all four of the kids never forgot that terrifying night they spent in a haunted house.

Now young adults, the members of the detective club are not doing so well: Kerri is a bartender with a drinking problem, Andy (deemed too aggressive for the military) has escaped from prison and is on the run, Nate is in an asylum, and Peter has killed himself.  Andy is the one who decides the team has to get back together and revisit the scene of their last case, and put the true mystery to rest at all costs.  That way, she figures, they’ll all be able to move on with their lives.

And it turns out there’s a lot more than just a guy in a mask waiting for them at the haunted mansion.

It’s inventive, original, and funny, with truly creepy scenes, lots of monsters, a suspenseful climax, tons of action, and a great mystery.  It’s like Lovecraft blended with Scooby Doo!

If you like horror that doesn’t skimp on the comedy, give this a read this Halloween!

 

 

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Marie’s Reading: “Quartet in Autumn” by Barbara Pym

quartet in autumnLetty, Marcia, Edwin, and Norman are low-level clerks who share an office in a very drab London in the 1970’s.  They’re all retirement-age, all very private, and all lonely and a bit strange.  The story follows the four of them through scenes of their lives outside of the office, and then, in the end, a move toward perhaps becoming more than simply workmates.

Pym’s satire is the gentle kind, rather than the acid kind–there are pointed barbs about the way the lonely elderly are treated by society, and about how the England of the 1970’s seemed like an alien place to those “born in Malvern in 1914 of middle-class English parents.”  Yet there’s real affection for these people, no matter their quirks or problems.  Pym writes with a lot of compassion.

Letty, the one from Malvern, is a tidy woman intent on education.  Edwin loves church to the point of obsession (he reads all sorts of newsletters and goes to everyone’s services).  Norman has lots of lofty plans which never quite materialize, as he finds himself keeping company with a brother-in-law he doesn’t like.  The only really sad, tragic member of the quartet is Marcia–she quietly goes around the bend after a mastectomy.

The pace is brisk, and goes from scene to scene, character to character.  It’s a very character-centered story, the focus always on these rather downtrodden office mates.  But it’s not a sad book–none of the four are really sad.  They’ve carved out their own happiness and their own little victories out of what their world has given them.  And the story ends on a very hopeful note.

Give this one a try if you’re after a gentle read that’s still smart and pointed, and is populated with affectionately rendered, interesting (if a touch eccentric) characters.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman

EleanorEleanor Oliphant is fine.  Completely fine.  Or at least, that’s what she tells herself, when the loneliness starts to be too much or when she has yet another awkward encounter with another person.  As quickly becomes clear in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine.

Eleanor is in her early thirties and she lives a solitary life.  She’s held the same office job for almost a decade.  She gets a weekly phone call from her volatile mother.  She’s socially inept, with real difficulty reading cues and interacting with other people.  She keeps to a strict daily routine and her weekends are a blur of vodka-haze.  Day after day, week after week, this is Eleanor’s life.

Until one day when she and a co-worker happen upon an elderly stranger who needs assistance.  From there, Eleanor’s routines are upended, and she suddenly has plans for the future and more human contact than she’s used to.

There’s a dark layer in this book that I wasn’t expecting.  Eleanor’s got a terrible, sad secret in her past, one that is uncovered as the book goes on.  She’s solitary and disconnected for a good reason.  However, this darkness makes the light at the story’s end that much brighter–there’s real weight and import in Eleanor’s growth as a person.  She’s not quirky.  She’s struggling to cope and to heal.

Which does not mean that she isn’t fun to read about.  This is a very amusing book, and extremely heartwarming, too.  There’s catharsis and change, but there’s also always a sturdy friend and hope for the future.  Her voice is original and perfectly individual.

Eleanor’s relationship with Ray, the scruffy IT guy from her office, is gold.  Ray is a kind, affable guy, and his patience with and affection for Eleanor is great to read about.   Their friendship shows how much kindness can make a huge difference.

If you liked The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, or A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, give this one a try!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries” by Kory Stamper

WordByWord_BSRbooks_040417Absolutely hilarious and endlessly informative, Word by Word is a pleasure to read–particularly if you love words!

Stamper, a lexicographer who works at Merriam Webster, talks about the nature of her job, the history and usage of dictionaries, and shares great anecdotes.  It’s witty, nerdy fun, and written with a whole lot of passion for words and language.  The behind-the-scenes tour of a dictionary definition is a fun peep behind the curtain of dictionary-making.

What I especially love about this book is how Stamper emphasizes that the role of the dictionary is to show us how language is actually used (with citations to prove it!).  The dictionary is always evolving and being updated, reflecting the culture and the actual usage of phrases and words out in the world.

And English is a super-unruly language to wrangle with, as Stamper notes.  The image of the English language as an incorrigible kid toddling home wearing someone else’s socks and its undies on its head is the best example of her vivid imagery, by the by.

On a personal level it was fun to see how many similarities there are between what a lexicographer does and what a library cataloger does.  This quote, from the epilogue, really spoke to me:

Lexicography is as much a creative process as a scientific one, which means that good lexicography relies on the craft of the drudges at their desks.  Lexicographers will frame their work as “an art and a science,” though we only throw that tired old coat over the bones of our work because it’s recognizable shorthand for saying that this thing–the act of creating a definition, sifting through pronunciations, conjuring Proto-Indo-European roots, ferreting out dates of first written use, rassling with language–isn’t just a matter of following a set of rules.

Stamper goes on to note that writing a dictionary entry is invisible work.  No one ever considers that a person, an educated, experienced person, must sit down and craft a dictionary definition.  She might as well be talking about a library catalog record. Or perhaps I flatter myself.

If you enjoy A.J. Jacobs’ books, you will probably find a lot to like in Stamper’s work.  Her style is accessible yet deeply intelligent, and her love for her work comes through on every page.  Language is a living, breathing, ever evolving thing, and lexicographers are there to keep track of it.

–Marie

P.S.
This is dumb, but I’m scared that Stamper will find this post and will judge my style and usage and word choice. 😦

 

 

Marie’s Reading: “All Grown Up” by Jami Attenberg

all grown upIn a series of connected vignettes, All Grown Up shares Andrea’s ongoing struggles with getting her life together and overcoming her childhood. It’s funny (often darkly so) and observant.  It’s sharp, too, and there’s a strain of melancholy and dissatisfaction that runs through it.  While everyone else seems to be moving forward with traditional life milestones, Andrea is 39 and the same person in the same place as she’s always been.

And is that really a problem?

I suppose you could call Andrea unlikeable, given how she can drive you a bit nuts with her selfishness and lack of motivation, but I liked her.  Andrea is funny and has rough edges. She comes across as a real human being with issues and flaws, but also with insight and desires and a sense of humor.  I like that she does what she wants, even if she regrets it or the situation turns out badly.  I can also identify with her sensualist tendencies (there are some great passages about food and the eating thereof in this book).

How does one measure success at being a “grown-up”?  How do you know when you are one?   Do those traditional milestones (marriage, home ownership, car ownership, boat ownership) really matter at all?  Maybe you know you’re a grown-up when you reach the point where you can be there for others even when it’s hard, create connections that matter to you, and when you can hold a sick baby’s hand.

I’m excited to read more of Attenberg’s work.  She’s witty and insightful and creates emotional  and truthful moments that pack a punch for how unexpectedly they creep up on you.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “All Our Wrong Todays” by Elan Mastai

274050062016 wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Tom knows.  He’s from the way the future is supposed to be: a techno-utopia free of want and war, where all material needs are provided for and the only industry left is entertainment.  However, his life kind of stinks.  His mother is dead and his father is a jerk, and Tom himself is a hopeless schmuck.  It’s down to his really, really stupid decision to go back to the past that history changed, the technology never materialized, and the world is what we’re used to.

And wouldn’t you know: Tom’s life in the wrong 2016 is awesome.  Much better than what he left behind.  Swiftly his dilemma becomes whether his wonderful family and life are worth the countless billions who were erased and the society that never was.

Like the best science fiction, All Our Wrong Todays has plenty of social commentary and ethical questions. But it’s such a refreshing change from dystopian fiction.  Particularly since, in this book, the reality that we know is the dystopia.  We have to kill plants and animals for food.  There’s pollution everywhere and we just keep making more.  Every technology we invent seems to do more harm than good, despite our best efforts.  Tom is shocked when he sees the conditions of our 2016.  Even though his world had problems, they were not on so grand a scale.

Tom is a great narrator, a totally directionless screw-up who seems incapable of changing.  Endlessly self-involved and self-deprecating, Tom’s emotional and personal arc over the course of the story is a rewarding one.  He finds himself cast in the role of hero by the end of the story, commenting on the fact that he suddenly  has a purpose and a duty.  Besides, he’s pretty funny, so that helps the narrative along.

I also really appreciated the optimistic ending.  The future (and the present) is what we make it.  It can be whatever we choose.  We should make sure we choose well.

All Our Wrong Todays is funny and smart, action-packed and cinematic.  It’s also a slightly mind-bending romp through alternate realities and the fabric of time and space.

The Martian by Andy Weir would be a great readalike for this, as would Dark Matter by Blake Crouch.  If you like the humor and cinematic writing style, you could try The Intern’s Handbook by Shane Kuhn.  You could also try The Man In the Empty Suit by Sean Ferrell, about a selfish time-traveler who has to solve his own murder.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Girl Waits With Gun” by Amy Stewart

cover_girl_waits_with_gun_amy_stewartI’m a little late to the party on this one.  But I’m so glad I finally arrived!

Girl Waits With Gun is based on real people, and tells the story of one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the United States.  Her name was Constance Kopp, and she lived in Wyckoff, New Jersey.  One day when out in town with her sisters, Norma and Fleurette, a wealthy silk factory owner ran into their buggy with his car.  Constance’s attempts to get the silk man to pay a $50 repair bill swiftly snowball into a dangerous situation when the man refuses to pay up.  Throw in a gang, some gunplay, and a missing child, and then let Constance Kopp save the day.

This is the first in a series, and I’ve also just finished the second installment, Lady Cop Makes Trouble.  The second one builds on the first for sure, but it’s a great outing all on its own–Constance finds her job in jeopardy after a criminal escapes on her watch.  These mysteries are amusing and filled with great characters.  As mysteries both of these books are a nice blend of police work and the more amateur sleuth style, given how Constance is kind of in-between those two worlds.

The pace is quick and the writing is evocative. Stewart does a lot with just a few lines to bring a scene or setting to life.  These books are set in the 1910’s, and there’s just enough historical detail to add color and interest.  And the characters are very well-realized through the dialogue-driven stories.  Their relationships, particularly those between the Kopp sisters, are very well-drawn.  In Girl Waits With Gun we get Constance’s backstory, and that of her family, and learn how these sisters ended up on an isolated rural farm.

Constance is presented as no-nonsense and incredibly driven, and I like how matter-of-fact she is about her unorthodox (for her time) profession.  This real-life quote from Constance says it all:

“Some women prefer to stay at home and take care of the house. Let them. There are plenty who like that kind of work enough to do it. Others want something to do that will take them out among people and affairs. A woman should have the right to do any sort of work she wants to, provided she can do it.”

She’s good at what she does and she wants the opportunity to do her job.  That’s pretty much all there is to it.  I appreciate how Constance just gets on with things, and the story never gets bogged down with the social issues that it touches on.  These books are about Constance Kopp taking down criminals, and keeping you delightfully entertained while she does so.

If you want to learn more, Stewart’s website has some great background on the characters and on New Jersey/New York City in the 1910’s.  Check it out here.

And the third installment is due in September, so keep your eyes peeled this fall for Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions!

–Marie