BELZHAR

belzharMEG WOLITZER

“Words matter. This what (the teacher) has basically been saying from the start. Words matter. All semester we were looking for the words to say what we needed to say. We were looking for the our voice.” Belzhar is about the power of writing and the power of books. The narrator of the novel, Jamaica “Jam” Gallahue, is enrolled at The Wooden Barn in Vermont, an institution dedicated to the care of “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers.” The Wooden Barn is the type of sanctuary a sensitive, difficult and well-to-do teenager is shuttled off to when, as Jam’s mother puts it, “We don’t know what else to do with you, babe!” She has been chosen for a peculiar class, Special Topics in English, where only a few select students will study with a respected, older teacher, to study only one writer in-depth. This year the poetess Sylvia Plath has been chosen for study. Journals are distributed for twice weekly writing about any topic. Each student in the group has suffered a life-altering calamity and when they write in their journal they go back to the time of their trauma to relive the time before it happened. Belzhar (pronounced BEL-jhar in homage to Plath’s “The Bell Jar”) is their code name for this trance state. When they return from Belzhar exactly five pages have been written in their journals, about what they did in the trance.

Wolitzer is a great writer. At times Belzhar was a page turner. Had I known it was a young adult book I likely wouldn’t have read it. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.

BORN WEIRD

feb13-Must-Reads-01ANDREW KAUFMAN

Weird is about the redemptive power of family. At the moment of their births the Weird children were given a blessing, a special power by their grandmother. As time passed the blessings seemed more of a cures than a blessing. The children call it a “blursing.”  Lucy never gets lost, Abba never loses hope, Richard is programmed to keep himself safe from harm, Kent is able to defend himself from all threats, and Angie always forgives. On her death bed the grandmother, who the children nicknamed, The Shark, predicated the exact time of her death and stated that if all the children were present that the curses would be lifted. What follows is a madcap race to gather all the sibling and convince them to come for the good of all. The children have been on their own since their father died in a car crash, the body was never found, and the mother slipped into a kind of madness at the loss of her husband.

“It became clear to her that the only thing powerful enough to transform people into brothers and sisters and and mothers and fathers, is the ability to forgive each other. That what really gets handed down from generation to generation isn’t blood or history but the will to forgive.”

THE TINY WIFE

ANDREW KAUFMANwife

The most bizarre bank robbery opens Wife. The the thief, flamboyantly wearing a purple hat, demands from all present in the bank the most sentimental item they possess. Not their money, “It was never about the money.” He receives a watch given to a man by his mother, photo graphs of children, a calculator by the mathematics loving wife of the narrator, a much read copy of The Stranger by Camus, among other precious objects. The thief tells the people he has taken 51 percent of their souls and that they will need to learn to grow them back or they will die. Thus the fable begins and so does the magic realism of this novella. The victims begin to notice strange things happening to them. A woman’s lion tattoo leaps off her leg and proceeds to chase her about the city. A baby fills his diapers with money instead of excrement. A woman wakes to find her husband has turned into a snowman. A man realizes his mother has become small enough to fit in his pocket, but worse, she exponentially multiplies, so that there are dozens of her. The narrator’s wife, Stacey, mother of their toddler, is shrinking at a rate she calculates will mean she will disappear in a matter of days.

At one point, the thief says to the husband: “Perhaps one of the hardest things about having kids is realizing that you love them more than your wife. That it’s possible to love someone more than your wife. What’s worse is that it’s a love you don’t have to work for. It’s just there, indestructible, getting stronger and stronger. While the love of your wife, the one you do have to work at, and work so very hard at, gets nothing. Gets neglected, left to fend for itself. Like a houseplant forgotten on the windowsill.”

Wife is well written and is a quick read. Check it out to find out which victims can grow back their souls and how. Well worth the read.

THE VISIONIST

visionRACHEL URQUHART

Polly Kimball “accidentally” sets fire to her family’s farm, killing her father. To escape from whatever fate awaits her, Polly and her younger brother Ben are sent by their mother to live in the Shaker community, City of Hope. Shakers would take in children under the condition that they must remain in the Shaker community and follow the strict Shaker rule. It’s Massachusetts, 1842, a high point in the Shaker culture. It’s not long after Polly’s arrival that she finds a kindred soul in Sister Charity, a young Shaker outsider with mysterious marks covering her body. For the first time ever, Polly thinks that she might find the peace that she has always been looking for. But what the girl doesn’t know is that Simon Pryor, a fire inspector, is searching for her and other survivors of the Kimball farm fire. He works for a rich land owner who wants to take over the land so he can profit from it by selling it to a miller who can use the stream flowing through it. He needs to find Polly’s mom to purchase the land cheaply.

The Visionist is an excellent read, a page turner at times.

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE

oceanNEIL GAIMEN

Gaimen has given us a dark dream of a novel, at times a nightmare. The forces of good and evil fight over the heart and soul of a seven year old boy. It is also about the fleeting and changing nature of memory. The narrator returns to his childhood home for a funeral. He is drawn to return to the house at the end of the lane. As he sits by the ocean that looks at times like a duckpond or a pail of water, childhood memories flood his consciousness. When he was a boy a horrible darkness was released in the neighbourhood when a man committed suicide in his family vehicle. Luckily he had the protection of the three women who live in the house at the end of the lane. Lettie, his friend promised to protect him no matter what would arise, was a couple of years older than him but had the wisdom of the ages. Her grandmother Mrs. Hempstock and her mother Old Mrs. Hempstock have amazing skills. They could even take time apart and sew it back together in a new and changed way.NeilGaimanSandman

Ocean is a must read. It is the type of book you can read in a single session it is so intriguing.

LONG LEGS BOY

boyBENJAMIN MADISON

When Modou’s parents are both dead from AIDS and his entire village is decimated he seeks help from an African  holy man, Alhaji, who takes care of boys who have no parents. Of course there are chores for all the orphans but there are also lessons to teach them the Koran. Reba Brecken, country director for Rights for Kids Coalition comes to their compound to check that the boys are being well taken care of. She believes the children should not have to work, and that they should be with their families. Unfortunately she is blind to the reality of life in Africa. News of another man who helps boys in need that his compound had been shut down and the boys sent off to various villages, Alhaji decides to move the boys to the capital. In the city the boys have no work so they must go beg to help support themselves. But the government doesn’t like street kids and rounds them up and dumps them at various villages after beating them. Most of them slowly and painfully make their way back to the capital. Modou has the gift of speed. He whizzes through the market earning money by quickly delivering messages and packages. He is also so fast that he can avoid the police who look foolish being unable to catch him. He earns the name Toofas (Toofast) and becomes a creature of myth and legend.

The part of the story where Modou becomes a rallying figure for rebel forces is overdone and unbelievable. But the rest of the novel is great. It highlights how the best meaning aid worker can create an even bigger problem by not comprehending the whole picture. A cautionary tale.

A must read.

AFTERWARDS

afterwards

ROSAMUND LUPTON

A tragedy. The private school is burning. Grace runs into the conflagration searching for her teenage daughter, Jenny. “Motherhood isn’t soft and cozy and sweet; it’s selfish ferocity, red in tooth and claw.”  Grace finds her but before she get her out a wall falls on them. Firefighters have trouble getting to the burning school because of the abandoned cars of terrified parents. We meet the pair again in the hospital where there bodies are in the burn unit but they are disembodied spirits who can communicate to each other but not to others. “I’m a sliver-thin light, diamond sharp, that can slip through gaps in the world we know. I will come into your dreams and speak soft words when you think of me. There is no happy ever after – but there is an afterwards.
This isn’t our ending.”  It appears that the fire was arson. The search to find the unsub is undertaken by Grace’s sister -in-law Sarah a police officer and detective. Jenny is given three weeks to live; her heart is giving out. Grace is found to be brain dead. Though in spirit they try to figure out this mystery.

A good mystery.

GEEK LOVE

KATHERINE DUNN

Geek Love is a truly bizarre work of fiction. The Binewski clan is a carny family. The parents, Al and Lilly, set out to breed circus freaks. They use chemicals, poisons and radiation to create this oddities. “What a greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?” Arturo the Aquaboy has flippers for limbs. He does his part of the show in a glass tank so the crowd can see him swimming. Elly and Iphy are Siamese twins, two torsos but only two legs. An albino hunchback,Oly, tells his strange and wonderous tale. The youngest Chick was born with no obvious
impairments, a norm. The parents were so horrified they made plans to give away their normal child. But Chicks abnormality is discovered just before he was to be abandoned.

This is a must read.

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN

RANSOM RIGGS

Jacob has grown up listening to his grandfather’s strange stories, although as he grows into his later teens he doesn’t believe the stories
the way he used toas boy. When he witnesses his  grandfather’s death by a vicious attack by one of the strange monsters form the stories he is both confused and inquisitive. Haunted by his grandfather’s last words, Jacob is determined to find out the truth.

Jacob manages to convince his therapist and his parents that a holiday away from home in a remote island off the coast of Wales is just what he needs to clear his head. Once he’s there, however, he realises that all his grandfather’s stories were true. Peppered with creepy photographs, the story is one of adventure and fantasy. Jacob is a great narrator, one who’ll appeal to children and adults. On the island, he finally feels like he’s found a place where he belongs and a sense of purpose in his life. Despite the image on the cover, this is not a horror story. It is more a magical fantasy world that we enter when we go with Jacob into Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

The book is fill will unusual pictures. The story is quirky and fun. Meant for teens, it is still an  enjoyable fantasy for adults.

THE BEGINNER’S GOODBYE

ANNE TYLER

“The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.” is a wonderful first sentence. But the book is not so much about the supernatural but about the relationship between Aaron, a publisher whose firm specializes in the series The Beginner’s Guides, and Dorothy, a radiologist. When Dorothy dies unexpectedly, Aaron is less haunted by his dead wife than by his own memories of their courtship and their lives together. Through his musings of their life together Aaron discovers how to be a better man and a better husband.

Tyler is such a wonderful author that this subject that would be maudlin in the hands of a less skilled author is infused with warmth and heart. A great read.

FIRST GRAVE ON THE RIGHT

DARYNDA JONES

Charlotte Jean “Charley” Davidson, is a PI and consultant for the Albuquerque, N.Mex., police department. She is helping her detective uncle, Bob Davidson, investigate the fatal shootings of three lawyers who were representing a client accused of murder. But that is her “day job”. She also lives on other planes.  As the grim reaper, she sees the spirits of people who have not yet crossed over and she escorts them”into the light.”  She helps souls complete what ever it is that is holding them back. Souls come to her because she is actually a porthole into the light. Charley finds herself oddly attracted to the hunky and handsome Reyes Farrow, a convicted criminal in a coma. She also has amazingly erotic dreams when he comes to her at night. Another of her special abilities is the ability to heal at fantastic speeds.

Charley sets the tone of the novel through her sass and wit.  She’s appealing, funny, and has a great attitude about life. All and all First Grave is a fun, good read.