Thursday, June 14, 2018

James and the Giant Peach

Written by: Roald Dahl

First line: Here is James Henry Trotter when he was about four years old.

Why you should read this book: Rollicking good fun for kids, this story is a tiny bit gentler than some of Dahl's other novels for young readers, full of invention and a touch of danger and just enough transformation to create a fairy tale sensibility. Orphaned at a young age, James escapes his abusive guardians with the help of a bag of magic, which he clumsily spills into the roots of a decrepit tree. Traveling in a giant peach, with the companionship of a group of giant, friendly insects, a little boy with no friends finds his way to a world with no lack of them.

Why you should read this book: Aside from a little sizeism directed at the terrible, abusive guardians, this book stands up pretty well for its age.

Ready Player One

Written by: Ernest Cline

First line: Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the contest.

Why you should read this book: In a future so bleak that everyone prefers to spend the vast majority of their lives jacked in to the virtual reality world known as the OASIS, the only beacon of hope for many young people is the contest set up by the OASIS's creator: solve a series of puzzles based on '80s pop culture knowledge and become the heir to the creator's tremendous fortune. Five years after the announcement, no one's solved a single puzzle, but Wade, impoverished and with very few of the resources needed to explore the OASIS, finally gets lucky. What follows is a break-neck journey through landscapes real, imaginary, and remembered, as Wade, his online friends, and an evil corporation race to reach the end of the quest and learn who will control the OASIS.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Oh, my god, the exposition. So. Much. Exposition.

Two or Three Things I Know for Sure

Written by: Dorothy Allison

First line: "Let me tell you a story," I used to whisper to my sister, hiding with them behind the red-dirt bean hills and row on row of strawberries.

Why you should read this book: This is a book about taking ownership of your own narrative, of accepting that the past is where you come from but not who you are. It's also a book about growing up affected by generation of poverty, violence, and sexual abuse, but, the author promises, everyone has the choice to transcend this history and create their own story. Short and fast-paced, this is a powerful memoir that feels like poetry although it's written in prose.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Trigger for childhood incest and abuse.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"

Written by: Zora Neale Hurston

First line: I was summer when I went to talk with Cudjo so his door was standing wide open.

Why you should read this book: This fascinating book, an interview turned on its head by the subject's desire to share his story in his own way, was an early work of a then relatively-unknown Hurston, who masterfully turned a series of conversations into the shape of a book that was then considered unpublishable, as Hurston insisted on retaining her subject's use of dialect; it has only been released now, nearly sixty years after the author's death (and even longer after the subject's). One of the few slave narrative recounting the middle passage, Barracoon follows the life of a young African man, plucked from the continent on a dare long after the transport of Africans to America on slave ships had been outlawed. The story covers traditional life in the village where Cudjo (originally know as Kossula) grew up, his kidnapping, sale, transport across the ocean, years as a slave, and years as a free man after the Civil War.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Don't care about history, hope to repeat it.

The Power

Written by: Naomi Alderman

First line: Dear Naomi, I've finished the bloody book.

Why you should read this book: Inventive, inspiration, and fast-paced, this speculative-realism novel proposes a world in which all girls and most women spontaneously develop the ability to generate and transmit electricity from their hands, effectively putting an end to most forms of male-on-female violence along with the patriarchy. We follow a handful of international characters: the foster kid who founds her own religion based on the power, the wealthy kid who launches a journalism career covering the phenomenon, the politician hiding her own power even as she works to regulate the paradigm shift. It's just a tremendously interesting story that plays with convention and rewrites reality.

Why you shouldn't read this book: I'll echo other critics with the assessment that the only thing that's wrong with this book is that it's not non-fiction. But I guess if you're a misogynist who already fears the ladies, this might not be the story for you.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Fish Girl

Written by: David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli

First line: Welcome to Ocean Wonders, the realm of Neptune, god of seas and storm.

Why you should read this book: Two talented children's authors offer a new spin on an old myth in gorgeous full color: the little mermaid get the Frozen treatment, taking romance out of the equation and replacing it with sisterly love. Fish Girl lives as a sideshow attraction in a failing boardwalk aquarium at the mercy of a man who claims to be Neptune, god of the ocean, her only protector. When she becomes friends with a human girl, her quest to explore the greater world and her own identity takes on a greater urgency.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You'd never give up your tail.

The Werewolf of Paris

Written by: Guy Endore

First line: Where shall I begin this tale.

Why you should read this book: This old novel has everything, if you consider rape, incest, cannibalism, sex work, monsters, obscure history, and mass murder to be everything. Conceived under ill-fated circumstance of an ill-fated line, Bertrand Caillet can do little to control the blood lust and putative transformation that has plagued his nights since childhood, climaxing in the anarchistic moment of the 1871 Commune government of Paris, a civilization in which a werewolf can really feel at home, or, perhaps, like a lesser monster among greater monsters. If you like gothic horror, and have a strong stomach, this is the next novel you should read.

Why you shouldn't read this book: In addition to the rape, incest, cannibalism, sex work, monsters, obscure history, and mass murder, there's a lot of French and some Latin.

Things Fall Apart

Written by: Chinua Achebe

First line: Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and beyond.

Why you should read this book: The life of Okonkwo, a strong man in a Ibo village in Nigeria, has long been a defining work that drew western readers into African literature. Detailed, meaningful, and deeply moving, this book paints a picture of world that has passed: a tribal world uncontaminated by colonial Christian influences, until, despite all of Okonkwo's beliefs and efforts, times change, and things fall apart. Okonkwo does everything according to the best practices of his civilization, even when there are questions as to the validity of the cultural knowledge, but when white men permeate the boundaries of his land, there is less honor for the traditional rules, and less of a place for strong men like Okonkwo.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're a missionary who finds other cultures fascinating as long as you can convert them.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Chu Ju's House

Written by: Gloria Whelan

First line: It was the fifth day of the fourth moon, Tomb Sweeping Day, which some call Day of Pure Brightness.

Why you should read this book: I don't think there's a lot of English children's literature set in this time and place: China in the 1960s, as ancient culture and modern values clash on personal and political levels. Chu Ju's family is devastated to learn that her new sibling is female, and decide to give the baby up for adoption so they can try for a boy under the current two-child policy. Chu Ju, in love with the new baby, decides to sacrifice herself, running away to find her own fortune so the new baby can grow up in a loving family.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You don't do hard work.

Bud, Not Buddy

Written by: Christopher Paul Curtis

First line: Here we go again.

Why you should read this book: Following another terrible, abusive foster placement, young orphan Bud (not Buddy), who still remembers his loving, but late mother, decides to escape the system and take charge of his future by tracking down his biological father. Guided only by some old flyers advertising a jazz band, Bud points himself in the direction of the man he's sure is his father, and learns that he still has a lot to learn about the world. Smart, detailed, and written in an astonishingly honest voice, this is an important book and a great read.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You torment your foster siblings for fun.