Category Archives: Fiction

THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN by Katherine Applegate

Our final mother-daughter book club read of 2015 was the 2013 Newbery Medal-winning The One And Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate. It’s the story of Ivan, a captive gorilla who has been living in a glass cage in a roadside mall for 27 years. Memories about his childhood in the wild, his deceased sister, and his strange years living with his keeper in a house are all painful for Ivan, so he mostly focuses on the present and the other animals in the roadside mall – Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. Ivan also paints (his paintings are available in the mall gift shop) and sometimes interacts with the humans who press their faces against the glass walls of his cage. A rather depressing existence.

The mall falls upon hard times, and in order to get more visitors, its owner buys a young elephant who has been captured from the wild. Ruby is wary and defensive at first, but thanks to Stella’s coddling and calming, she become more interactive. She reluctantly participates in the tricks her new owner trains her to do, but she questions him, and the whole setup, from the start. When Stella dies from a foot infection, she extracts a deathbed promise from Ivan that he will take care of Ruby and get her out of captivity, so that she doesn’t spend her life the way Stella did.

How will complacent (depressed?) Ivan find a way to get Ruby – and himself – out of the mall? And what will they find when they get out?

The One And Only Ivan is a moving – often very sad – exploration of the relationship between humans and animals, friendship, keeping hope alive, and making a change. It sparked a good discussion among our group of 11 year-olds about whether zoos are positive places for animals and how animals think and communicate. We all felt deeply for these creatures and were very sad about the way they were treated, though we also sympathized not only with the animals’ handler but also the man who ran the mall, who cared about them in his own way. It’s a very easy book to read, with short chapters and sentences that convey what Ivan is thinking, but the themes addressed are not simple or easy.

The girls in the book club liked The One And Only Ivan quite a bit, and for many of them it ranked among their two favorite books of the year.

THE SWEETHEART DEAL by Polly Dugan

[First, a note – somewhere along the way, I stopped including the Depressing-o-Meter in my reviews. I miss it. I think I am going to add it back in. For the newbies, it measures, on a scale of 1 to 10, how depressing the reviewed book is. Most books reviewed on EDIWTB fall into the 6-9 category.]

Last year, I reviewed a collection of short stories by Polly Dugan called So Much A Part Of You. I really enjoyed it, and noted that she had a novel coming out in 2015 that I was looking forward to reading. That novel is now out and it’s called The Sweetheart Deal.

Don’t be misled by the cozy domestic photo on the cover, or by the plot – firefighter husband dies in an accident and best friend moves in to help widow, who is unaware that husband once made best friend sign an agreement that he would take care of widow if anything ever happened to husband – which both suggest conventional women’s fiction with a predictable ending. That’s not really what The Sweetheart Deal is.

Dugan’s writing is spare and matter-of fact. The Sweetheart Deal is told from multiple perspectives – wife Audrey, best friend Garrett, and Audrey’s three sons, switching off each chapter. I liked her attention to detail and the very realistic way that she described how the characters felt and related to each other. I felt like I was in the room with them, watching familiar scenes unfold in ways that made perfect sense. Dugan’s depiction of grief was pretty powerful, especially from Audrey’s perspective. There is a scene that really stuck with me, where Audrey is so incapable of functioning that she can’t even pull an outfit together to leave the house. Her interactions with her sons also seemed very accurate to me.

Of course the main focus of the book is the relationship between Garrett and Audrey. That was the weaker link in the story. I didn’t doubt that the two developed feelings for each other, but I wanted to know why. In order to root for them as a couple and believe that they were right for each other outside of Garrett’s promise to his best friend, I needed to see stronger evidence of their independent connection. Garrett knew Audrey for many years before he flew to Portland to help her through her grief. What did he think of her then, and how did his feelings change, or emerge, when he got to Portland? These questions nagged at me a little while I was reading the book. I just wanted more.

Overall, though, The Sweetheart Deal is readable, engrossing and moving. It’s a small story in scope, with only a handful of characters, but it takes on big, universal issues with understanding and empathy. It wasn’t a perfect read, but it was definitely worth the time. I hope Dugan has more novels in her.

Depressing-0-Meter: 7. It’s about death and grieving, so a 7 is actually pretty good.

 

COUPLE MECHANICS by Nelly Alard

The first book I picked up after BEA was an ARC I got at the blogger-publicist speed dating event on the last day of the conference. It’s not on sale until January 2016, which doesn’t make it the best candidate for a blog post in June, but it was what called to me when I opened my BEA box, so I went with it. Sorry to publish a review for a book you can’t get for 6 more months! (Decent book bloggers don’t do this. They write the review now and post it in 6 months, or they have a better system that tells them when to read which books. Sadly, I am not that organized, and when I finally finish a book, I need to publish the review or otherwise there won’t be any posts on the blog.)

The book is Couple Mechanics by Nelly Alard. It’s about a couple, Juliette and Olivier, who live in Paris with two small children and who are coping with the immediate aftermath of Olivier’s admission that he has had an affair. The book follows the next few months as Juliette decides how to deal with this news and Olivier tries to break things off with the woman he had the affair with. Juliette alternates between fury, despair and resignation, but is pretty committed to her marriage through the book. Olivier, who Alard portrays mostly as a weak, selfish and self-absorbed man, is also committed to Juliette, but at the same time proud of the affair and unable to say the things he needs to make Juliette feel reassured and comfortable.

Couple Mechanics is a small book in that it covers a very narrow slice of territory: this one triangle and the damage it wreaks on Juliette’s marriage. There are larger points about marriage, desire, trust and parenting, but the plot intently follows the immediate aftermath of the affair and how it plays out. It’s almost told in real time, with chapters detailing texts between Olivier and the other woman (Victoire), messages left by Victoire on Olivier’s phone, and the endless conversations Juliette and Olivier have about what he is going to do about Victoire and how they are going to muddle through. You have to really want to follow this triangle closely. There are times when the book gets a little repetitive and claustrophobia-inducing, given the subject matter. But I liked it a lot. Alard is a great writer (my version is a French translation) and misses absolutely nothing. She has it in for Olivier, but given how he behaves, he deserves it. Perhaps she could have made him a little bit contrite, just to give him more dimension, as he’s pretty easy to dislike. Juliette makes for a better protagonist, though she is sometimes a bit passive and quick to defend her insensitive husband.

Couple Mechanics is a smart, insightful novel that I had a hard time putting down. If you can tolerate the subject matter and give in to the type of ride you’re getting on – one with many starts and a slow speed that gives you an excellent view out the window – then it might be for you. It’s a first class ticket to someone else’s train wreck.

I will try to remember to post this again in January 2016.

Books About Disappearing Kids

Have you read a bunch of books about kids who disappear? I know I have. I did a roundup of disappearing kids/parent’s worst nightmare books for the current issue of Readerly. Check it out here.

 

EARLY WARNING by Jane Smiley

I love sweeping family dramas, and Jane Smiley’s three-volume chronicle of the Langdon family is basically the definition of a sweeping family drama. It covers 100 years, with each chapter devoted to one year. The first book, Some Luck, opens in 1920, and the second book, Early Warning, picks up in 1953. I reviewed Some Luck last year (review here), and just finished Early Warning, which came out in April.

The Langdon family consists of Walter and Rosanna, who live on a farm in Iowa, and their 5 kids, and their grandchildren, and eventually their great-grandchildren. (The family gets so big that Smiley includes a family tree at the beginning to keep everyone straight). When Early Warning opens, Walter has just died and America is in the throes of its glory days, the 50s. All but one of the Langdon children have left the farm and moved away, while Joe, the second oldest, has followed in his father’s footsteps as a farmer. Each chapter moves the family’s narrative along by focusing on a few different characters. Sometimes Smiley’s sections are about momentous events, like deaths or weddings, but sometimes she isolates a smaller moment that perfectly crystalizes a relationship or a character’s emotional development. Smiley isn’t the warmest writer in terms of showing emotion, but she certainly allows her readers to develop feelings for her characters.

I am sort of in awe of Smiley’s imagination. She came up with this whole family, and the twists and turns each member goes through, and all of the little details about their lives, in her head. (I know, this is what writers do, but seriously.). And she weaves in politics, and fashion, and the CIA, and the Reverend Jones, and Vietnam, and the Kennedys and Carter and Reagan and so much more. It’s like Forrest Gump, but good.

I’ve seen these Langdons age, and some of them die, over 800 pages, and I feel pretty attached to them at this point. I’m definitely looking forward to volume 3, Golden Age, which comes out in October.

I listened to Early Warning on audio, just as I did with Some Luck. The narration has grown on me. Lorelei King has a very distinct voice that sometimes doesn’t fit with the characters she is narrating, but I’ve gotten used to her and now totally associate her with the Langdon trilogy. I finished the last 60 pages or so in print, and I found myself missing the audio and saying the words in my mind the way Lorelei would (which is the opposite of what I wrote in my Some Luck review). It’s a long series, and I admire her stamina!

Overall, strong second installment. Can’t wait for the third.

ESPERANZA RISING by Pam Munoz Ryan

Our May mother-daughter book cub pick was Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan. It’s about Esperanza, a 12 year-old girl living a luxurious life in Mexico with her parents, complete with servants and a beautiful home. Her world disappears one day when her father is killed by bandits, and she and her mother are forced to sell their house to her uncle. With nothing to their names anymore, Esperanza and her mother flee to California, where they move into a Mexican farm labor camp. These transitions are extremely difficult for Esperanza, who is not used to working and who deeply misses her father.

Once in California, Esperanza’s mother goes to work in the fields, while she takes care of twin babies living in the home they are sharing with another family. But when her mother gets gravely ill with Valley Fever, Esperanza must take her place on the farm and is forced to grow up, quickly. She also has to contend with striking workers, picket lines, and the question of whether she and her fellow farm workers could afford to fight for better conditions when they were so dependent on the wages they’re getting.

Esperanza grows throughout the book, so that by the end, she is mature, unselfish, and much more aware of the world and its inequalities. When she gives a young friend a treasured doll she had gotten from her father, her coming-of-age is complete.

Unfortunately, very few girls attended our book club meeting this past weekend, so I didn’t get a good sense of how much they enjoyed Esperanza Rising. I found it to be a relatively quick and pretty easy read. I think it is a good pick for middle grade readers because it takes them far out of their comfort zone in terms of the types of situations Esperanza faced, and it sheds light on a section of society that hasn’t gotten much attention. I am sure many readers could relate to Esperanza’s early years, but not to the harsh reality of her life in America.  Esperanza Rising is ultimately a harrowing, but hopeful, story. (It’s no coincidence that Esperanza means “hope” in Spanish.)

RUNNING OUT OF TIME by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Our April mother-daughter book club pick was Running Out Of Time, by Margaret Peterson Haddix. In the book, a 13 year-old girl named Jessie lives with her family in an Indiana town in 1840. It’s a small town where she knows everyone, attends the school, and does everything a girl of her time would do. Except, it turns out, “her time” is actually 1996. Her parents moved to a historical village when she was a baby, and have raised her there, letting her believe it is over a century earlier than it really is. The town is observed every day by tourists behind one-way glass and secret cameras, letting visitors observe the goings-on without being noticed.

When diptheria starts spreading among the children of the town, Jessie’s mother finally confides in her and asks her to try escape to present-day and get medicine that will cure the children. The people who founded the town, Clifton, have refused to give the townspeople access to modern medicine, despite promises that they would when they recruited the people to come live there. They now have their own sinister plan to refuse medical care for the people living there in the name of science, and are forcibly keeping them there. Julie’s mother sees her as the final hope to get the medicine they need before children in the town start dying of a disease with an easy medical cure.

Julie learns the truth about her life on the same night she has to escape, so her mind is reeling when she dons her mother’s old jeans and sneakers and sets out to explore the real world. There are several twists along the way, but Julie is brave and resourceful and manages to tell the world about the truth behind the historical town: that people there are being forced to stay against their will, and that children are being denied life-saving medicine.

This was an unusual book pick for our book club, as we haven’t read many action/adventure books before. I wouldn’t say that it was the girls’ favorite book of the year, but I found it quite creative and suspenseful. It was fun to see the differences between 1840 and 1996 through the eyes of a young adult. We actually had one of our best discussions of the year, covering topics like a parent’s responsibility to her child, the ethics of medical experimentation, and whether the girls would rather live in the past or the present. The book also reminded quite a few of us of The Truman Show.

I enjoyed Running Out Of Time and was surprised that more girls didn’t like it as much as I did.