30
Dec
22

Finishing out my quarter-Cannonball with a little Odenkirk. Review dump 4. CBR14 reviews 12-14.

What better way to wrap up my little review party than with Mr Bob Odenkirk? We said goodbye to Saul Goodman this year, and Jesus, we almost said goodbye to Bob himself. Which would have been too much for me to take. So in between the final mini-seasons of Better Call Saul, I went on an Odenkirk binge. And I loved it.

First up, I listened to Bob’s memoir, Comedy Comedy Drama Drama, read by the author himself.

Spanning Bob’s life from his teens, and his obsession with off-beat comedy and his successful stalking of Del Close, to Better Call Saul and becoming an unexpected action star in Nobody (no mention of the heart attack here), CCDD provides and in-depth look at Bob’s successes and failures, his loyal friendships, and those he does not care for.

Bob seems to be aware that at times, he is not the easiest person to deal with. He admits when he has made mistakes, most notably in a chapter about Jack Black and Tenacious D, He knows he was difficult at Saturday Night Live, admits he burned pretty much every bridge possible (see more below in the SNL section of this missive), but made great contacts and met like-minded people.

I loved the stories about making The Ben Stiller Show and Mr Show, and the stories about comedy in the 90s. Of course he dated Janine Garafolo. Nothing could be more 90s than that.

It was really fascinating to learn about all of the projects that never saw the light of day, even after Mr Show, and how hard it was for him to give up control in order to achieve commercial success. He told a great story about how he basically single-handedly ruined the Tenacious D show on HBO, but Jack Black is a better man than he is and forgave him (he also tells an amazing story about Jack Black getting into show business because of Anne Bancroft, wow).

He also talks about how humbling it has been for him to work with amazing actors like Michael McKean (one of his earliest heroes from his time in The Credibility Gap), Rhea Seehorn, Michael Mando, etc.

I hope someday Bob writes a sequel telling us all about his lengthy second act in Hollywood, post heart attack and Albuquerque.

Once I finished CCDD, I picked up the most absurd audio book I could find: Hollywood Said No! This is simply Bob, David Cross, and their Mr Show friends reading scripts that they pitched and were rejected.

When I tell you that this was absurd, please know, I am not kidding.

The bulk of this audiobook was a reading of “Hooray for America!”, which I saw as a touring stage production in the early 2000s. It’s crazy. What if Mr Show’s GLOBO CHEM corporation sponsored and financed an idiot of their choosing to run for president? A generic American idiot, played by David, suddenly finds himself in the national political spotlight, while simultaneous crazy plots about living on the moon and a town filled with holes play out with the regular Mr Show cast of comedians. Everyone plays multiple, ridiculous roles, and the cast is clearly having an amazing time.

This is not literature. But if you like Mr Show, you’ll like this.

Lastly, I listened to the massive, 28 hour, updated version of Live From New York, the story of Saturday Night Live.

There is a lot going on in this book. It made me dislike so many people I used to enjoy, none more than Al Franken. It was like he went out of his way to be the worst. And made me like lots of people I never cared much for, like Chevy Chase, who didn’t excuse his asshole behavior, but tried to explain it.

I hated Jimmy Fallon and his fame obsession more than everyone else in the book. And I loved Jane Curtain and her indifference to it all.

It made me truly dislike and be amazed by Lorne Michaels. It also made me respect Dick Ebersol, and how hard he had to work to keep the ship afloat when Lorne was gone.

The book was told like an oral history, which was great, we got everyone’s input during every era of the show. And I mean everyone. Cast, crew, hosts, musicians, friends, family, everyone. But I hated the narrators. HATED them. I hated that they tried to sound like the people they were representing. That was rough.

Some great Odenkirk stuff in here. He took the writing job at the request of his friend Robert Smigel. He and Robert and Conan hit it off and wrote stuff that they liked, even if nobody else did. Bob was truly critical of the show and Lorne and how everything always has to be one way, and if you don’t fit into that way, you can’t succeed. Like Larry David, Bob left SNL badly, burning bridges and making enemies. But I think he made a lot of valid points.

The last few hours of the book were definitely difficult to get through. I don’t really watch the show anymore, I don’t find it as fresh as it once was. I know I’m older than the audience Lorne is looking for these days, but for a long time, I loved it, and the bulk of the book was really fascinating to listen to.

30
Dec
22

“And if one is never lost in life, then clearly one has never traveled anywhere interesting.” Review Dump 3. CBR 14 reviews 9-11.

Thanks to this group, 2022 was the year in which I discovered Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron, and Ibrahim, otherwise known as the Thursday Murder Club. The Club has a few other members. Donna and Chris, sometimes Bogdan, and even Alan. And I cannot read about their adventures quickly enough. Why aren’t there 90 books about these people?

For the very few who do not know, the Thursday Murder Club is a group of seniors who live in a retirement community and review unsolved murder cases in their spare time. They have Chris and Donna — a few local police officers who begrudgingly (and really, they are kidding themselves if they don’t say they enjoy it) — and Bogdan, who gets things done in ways that are in a legally grey area.

Thanks to Elizabeth’s previous (and current?) life in MI5 or MI6 (I can’t keep track), Ibrahim’s previous work as a psychologist, Ron’s former life as a union activist, and Joyce’s understanding of people and baking, the “club” always seems to accomplish what it sets out to do. While they have made many friends along the way, they have made enemies, too, like a local drug dealer and a police captain who thinks maybe he could be a famous author.

They eat cake, drink tea, and share lots and lots of wine. They go on train rides. They dress up and try to hide their identities. They go swimming in skyscrapers. They play chess and hang out with Russian spies. They play matchmaker and hang out with grandchildren. They are a god damned delight.

But not everything is wonderful. Joyce misses her late husband a lot. Elizabeth’s dear husband, Stephen, has dementia and is falling slowly away. Ibrahim has suffered a terrible attack and beating that left him both physically and mentally weakened. And they lose people around them almost every day. They realize that each new day is a blessing at their age, and are truly grabbing life by the proverbial horns.

And lets talk about Chris and Donna and Bogdan for a minute.

I have loved seeing Chris fall in love and slowly but surely change his ways to become a better man. No more candy bars for dinner, he’s trying to figure out what quinoa is.

I always enjoy the little interludes where Bogdan, a man who has done some questionable things but mostly for good reasons, plays chess and spends time with his friend Stephen.

And Donna is the best. She gets exasperated by her friends at the Thursday Murder Club, but still loves them. She’s always questioning some of the decisions she has made in her life that have led her to where she is, but see seems to be doing great, and I want the best for her.

SIDEBAR: have you read any of the Angelique De Xavier books by Christopher Brookmyre? Donna makes me think of Angelique. Those three books (A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away, The Sacred Art of Stealing, A Snowball in Hell) might be my favorite detective books in the world. END SIDEBAR.

This series is like comfort on a page. Richard Osman knows what the people want, and is happily giving it. I have read that Steven Spielberg’s production company bought the rites to this series…I’m not sure if its for a movie or a series, but I have high hopes for it.

29
Dec
22

Review Dump 2: My Favorites of the Year. CBR14 Reviews 5-8.

In case I don’t get around to finishing all the reviews I was hoping to before the deadline…I wanted to make sure to share my thoughts on my four favorite books of the year: Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow; This Time Tomorrow; The Candy House; and Sea of Tranquility. 2022 was an amazing year for books.

I preordered Sea of Tranquility and received in on release day. I finished it on release day too.

I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t love it quite as much as Station Eleven (because, quite frankly, I had been disappointed by The Glass Hotel and also by the HBO miniseries. Don’t @ me, I said what I said.). But I think it works as a beautiful companion piece to Station Eleven, and it makes The Glass Hotel better (as it clearly takes place in the same universe).

Told in chunks of time and place: going from early 19th century British Columbia, to two hundred years from now on the moon, back to the present, and forward again to 2400, and yet…all of the stories are related and revolve around a common moment in time.

Like Station Eleven, this one also includes a deadly pandemic, and the way St John Mandel described its onset felt like she was in my head:

“We knew it was coming and we were breezy about it…We knew it was coming but we behaved inconsistently. We stocked up on supplies—just in case—but sent our children to school, because how do you get any work done with the kids at home?”

The masterful and heartbreaking way that she ties all of these timelines and stories together was fascinating, and I honestly can not wait to see what she comes up with next.

On the same day I got Sea of Tranquility, I also received The Candy House (along with one more book, Anthem, which is in my bottom three books of the year). Another book told with a non-traditional narrative sense, I liked this a lot more than my previous Egan books. And like Sea of Tranquility, there were many callbacks to her previous work in this, mostly to characters and themes from A Visit From the Good Squad.

A cautionary tale about social media and technology, but also about the wonders of memory and thought. When it becomes possible to upload your entire memory and consciousness to a server and make your thoughts and experiences available to anyone that is also sharing, nothing is secret anymore. We follow the inventors and users of this amazing new tool as well as those who refuse to use it and protest against it.

Like Good Squad before it, it is nearly impossible to describe. Each chapter is told in a new voice, with a new style…some way more successful than others, but all original and interesting. We see the wonders of technology on one page, and the horrors and inherent loneliness that can be caused by using the same technology (and current social media) on the next.

If you liked Good Squad, you’ll love this.

My second favorite book this year was This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub, which I read right after her dad (the great Peter Straub) passed away. What if time travel was real, and instead of being able to go back and change history or experience a famous event, you simply went back and talked to your dad a few more times before you couldn’t?

Alice is turning 40. She likes her job. She likes her Brooklyn apartment. She has the same best friend from high school. She just turned down a marriage proposal because she likes her life as it is. And her dad is dying.

On the night she turns 40, she goes out to a bar in New York City that she hasn’t been to since high school. She gets so drunk that she decides to go back to her dad’s apartment on the Upper West Side (HOW HAD I NOT KNOWN ABOUT POMANDER WALK BEFORE?) instead of Brooklyn, and she passes out in his gardening shed. When she wakes up, it is the morning of her 16th birthday, and her dad is healthy and young.

What would you do differently if you could do something to help your dying father? To be able to spend just a little more time with him. Would those changes make you happier? Would they make your future life better?

I loved the slice of 1990’s New York City that was laid out on the page, and loved that Alice, while literally an adult, was also an idiotic teenager and she made some very very bad choices and decisions. I thought this was beautiful and funny and I loved it.

Another book with Tomorrow in the title, my favorite of the year: Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow. A story about two friends who make video games and what happens in their relationship — both personal and professional — over the course of 30 years or so.

I mentioned previously that it was like the Jake Johnson episode of Mythic Quest in book form, but it was more than that. It was a beautiful story about what it means to be a friend, to really be there for someone no matter what. How to work together, be friends, love each other, how to connect, and often, how to make mistakes so that the connection is broken.

There was a point in this book where I finished an especially moving chapter, put the book down, and simply wept for 10 minutes. And then I had to pick it back up and keep reading, I had to know what would happen next, even if I knew it might not be a happy ending. I didn’t expect a book about making video games to have that effect on me. The story of Sam and Sadie and Marx was one that I didn’t think I would become so invested in, and one that I had difficulty saying goodbye to,

“What is a game?” Marx said. “It’s tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. It’s the possibility of infinite rebirth, infinite redemption. The idea that if you keep playing, you could win. No loss is permanent, because nothing is permanent, ever.” 

29
Dec
22

Mainlining Scotland to Make Me Feel Better. CBR 14 reviews 2-4.

First. I have been the worst reviewer this year. I kept meaning to sit down and write, because I have read more books than ever this year, but life just kept getting in my way. As it does.

And yet, here I am, in week two of a positive Covid test, and I’ve finished binging all the shows (SIDE NOTE: how had I slept on For All Mankind for so long?). No time like the present to get started.

A few weeks ago, I saw Ian Rankin tweet about a list of the best books of the year, compiled by some British someone who had curated a fine list of reading, but had omitted any and all romance and comfort reading. The list had been “improved” by fellow Scot Jenny Colgan, who listed some amazing books that she had read in 2022, and I fell down a rabbit hole of her twitter page and decided to read whatever my library had available by her.

48 hours and three books later, I came up for air, obsessed with Jenny Colgan and her cozy Scottish stories. I read The Bookshop on the Shore, The Christmas Bookshop, and 500 Miles From You. And my online library has a few more (but not a complete collection by any means), so I imagine I’ll finish a few more while I wait out my negative test result,

The books follow a familiar pattern: we have a main character who is not living their best life. They then for various reasons (no money, bad boyfriend, trauma) relocate to a very lovely Scottish location, and VOILA, 300 pages later, BEST LIFE.

The Bookshop on the Shore:

Zoe is a single mom living in near-poverty in London with a son who is almost four and how still doesn’t speak. Her son’s father is never around, never contributes, and is always off DJing and chasing Instagram likes. When his sister finds out that he has a secret son that he’s never told his family about, she gets involved, helping Zoe get a temporary position as a nanny and part-time bookseller (in a delightful book bus, which I guess is a plot of a completely separate book that I did not read in the correct order) way up north near Loch Ness.

The family that Zoe is meant to help out with is a mess, and the talk of the small town. The three kids are more or less wild — the mother is mysteriously missing, and the father is so busy working that he doesn’t have the time or the temperament to take care of them — so they do what they like, when they like.

Zoe finds herself a very unwelcome fish out of water. But she puts her head down and tries her best. And slowly but surely, both the town and the family find that she is exactly where she is supposed to be.

There are some dark parts — abandonment, self harm, mental health –here that I did not expect, but they were handled with care.

I literally waited 11 seconds after finishing that one to download the next one my library had.

The Christmas Bookshop:

Carmen has just lost her job working in her hometown department store. There doesn’t seem to be much for her at home, so her VERY SUCCESSFUL sister in Edinburgh sends for her, offering her a place to stay and a temporary job for Christmas, which Carmen begrudgingly accepts.

Carmen finds herself in her very pregnant sister’s beautiful home, surrounded by her nieces and nephew that she doesn’t really know (along with one horrible au pair), and a new job working in what she was told was a bookshop, but is more a room that has boxes of dusty books in it.

Again, no surprises here, but Carmen works hard at fixing both her relationship with her family and her new boss. Can she save the lovely bookshop? And what about the mysterious and handsome professor with the man bun?

This one had me googling flights to Edinburgh for next Christmas. How have I not been there at the holidays? I think that has been a grievous mistake.

500 Miles From You:

This one was a little different, but no less enjoyable. Lissa is a nurse barely getting by in London. She lives in government provided housing and hangs out with her best friend, the delightful Kim-Ange. One day, while out on a routine call, she witnesses the murder of a young boy that she knows, and after she is unable to save him, she quickly falls into the trappings of PTSD. The NHS decides to send her away on a job-share program, up to the very same town that Zoe lives in (from the first book mentioned above).

And who is Lissa job-sharing with? Cormac, a former army medic, now a nurse in the rural Scottish Highlands. He moves down to London and into Lissa’s flat.

Neither of them are comfortable at first with their new surroundings, and email and text each other (although they have never met) to better understand what the other’s life is like.

I could have done without the ridiculous last 10 pages, but other than that, I enjoyed the alternating narration and points of view. And was surprised by nothing, which is just what I wanted.

These books are like pure, 100% comfort, wrapped in wool and tweed, drinking hot tea, and wearing Wellies. Characters from previous books pop up and seeing them doing well was so soothing. I’m so glad Ian Rankin sent me in this direction. This was just what I needed.

24
Feb
22

Why show when you can just tell? CBR 14 review 1.

Have you seen Mare of Eastown?

This is a lot like that.

But without coffee from Wawa. And without Jean Smart. Without amazing accents and bearded Roy-from-the-Office.

Oh, and without good writing or realistic characters.

If you’ve seen Mare, no need to read this.

Really, no need to read this at all.

I had the mystery solved before the first chapter had ended and tortured myself to finish to prove I was right.

Chloe Davis is an amazingly brilliant and wonderful young psychologist living in Baton Rouge. We know she is amazingly brilliant because she tells us. In the therapy sessions that are described she seems disinterested and distracted, borderline rude, but we are told she’s great at her job, so she must be.

Chloe is the daughter of one of the world’s most nefarious serial killers. 20 years ago, her father kidnapped and murdered 6 young girls in their small Louisiana bayou town. We know he was nefarious because she tells us.

And now, on the 20th anniversary of those disappearances, girls are going missing in Baton Rouge. It must be a copy-cat killer, she tells us.

And fireflies are clearly an important part of the story, because she tells us that they are.

Chloe can’t go to the police with the evidence she is gathering in her mind, because the police think she is crazy. Why? Because she tells us that they do.

Tell tell tell tell tell.

This book is full of TELLING not SHOWING. And it made me crazy.

Don’t get me wrong, the book is filled to the brim with adjectives and adverbs, and some editor somewhere must have thought that those descriptive words were good enough for explaining and showing. But they aren’t. They are just filler.

Characters are introduced simply to let you know that bad things will happen to them later in the book. Chloe doesn’t seem to have a single friend in her life, even though she tells us that she does. There is a huge party at the beginning of the story FILLED WITH FRIENDS who are literally never mentioned again, unless something terrible happens to them later.

And another thing. 

Told in the first person (which is fine), the verb tenses kept switching back and forth. “I walk to the store” vs. “I’m walking to the store” and it really got under my skin. How was this a book of the month club selection?

I really hated this book. Please don’t bother.

09
Dec
21

“Mum spent a lot of time in my formative years gently reminding me that people don’t think about us nearly as much as we think they do, because they’re all busy worrying what people are thinking about them.” CBR13 Review 17 & 18.

Imagine a high school that has zero teachers or staff, just students trying to learn and advance. When you show up the first day of freshman year you don’t leave until graduation day senior year. All you have with you is what you had in your pockets or even in your mouth — No suitcases or trunks. 

It’s a school of magic, but not like Hogwarts or Watford. 

And that school is actively trying to kill you.

This is the world that our “heroine,” El (that’s short for Galadriel, naturally) live in. She goes to the Scholomance*, a school of magic on another plane of existence entirely, and all she wants is to survive, and get back to her mother in rural Wales. The odds are against her – by her junior year, El hasn’t formed any alliances, and doesn’t have anyone to watch her back during “graduation.”

Oh, and graduation? No speeches and diplomas. You simply fight for your life against the monsters and creatures that have been waiting all year long to eat you. If you get from one end of the graduation hall to the other, and can get through the portal door without being eaten, you graduate.

Without alliances (both inside the school and back at home), you are likely to die before the end of senior year. There are hungry monsters (or mals, in these books) in the bathrooms, in the food lines in the cafeteria, even in your mattress or pillow. 

El works alone, building up the magical energy (or mana) that she needs for spells by doing sit ups and crocheting in her spare time. She could take the easy route and steal energy (or malia) from others, as she is apparently the most gifted student of her age (and maybe ever?), but she is afraid of how that power would change her.

And halfway through her junior year, El finds herself sort-of-dating Orion, the greatest mal slayer she has ever seen. Orion hails from the most powerful enclave of wizards in the world – New York City – and he is their greatest weapon. He builds up so much mana by slaying the mals around him (or that he hunts for), that his entire enclave can survive off of him, sharing his mana with cool little magic fitbits (or something like that…worn on the wrist but not really a watch?). Orion rushes around the school saving other kids from the monsters hiding in the shadows and El really, really resents him for it. Nobody wastes their own mana saving someone else. You need to look out for yourself.

El slowly makes some friends, who realize an alliance with her is a huge asset. Her spell casting is like nothing any of them have seen before, and if they stick with her, their chances for graduating are that much higher.

The first book, A Deadly Education, is the story of El’s junior year, the beginning of her relationship with Orion, and the creation of her alliance with her new friends. The second book, The Last Graduate, is all about senior year, and how El and her friends plan to graduate.

I freaking adored these books. 

They were funny and scary and slightly unhinged. I could not put them down. At the end of the first book, I only had to wait a few days before the second, preordered one, came in the mail. At the end of the second, I said “WHAT?” out loud and then realized it will be months, if not years, before the third book comes out, and that was not a great feeling.

I loved that Novik explained some things, but didn’t explain everything about this world. The first page just dumped us straight into the story, with very little introduction. Figure it out on your own, reader. 

I can’t wait for the third book, The Golden Enclaves.  

*I was today years old when I learned that the term Scholomance is an actual term from folklore. From Wikipedia:
The Scholomance[a]  was a fabled school of black magic in Romania, especially in the region of Transylvania. It was run by the Devil according to folkloric accounts. The school enrolled about ten students to become the Solomonari. Courses taught included the speech of animals and magic spells. One of the graduates was chosen by the Devil to be the Weathermaker and tasked with riding a dragon to control the weather.

The school lay underground, and the students remained unexposed to sunlight for the seven-year duration of their study. The dragon was kept submerged in a mountaintop lake, south of Sibiu, according to some accounts.

05
Dec
21

“Why, oh, why did you have to give birth to a son who hasn’t given us a moment’s peace since the day he was born?” CBR13 Reviews 12-16.

I know I have written about this magical place before, but I need to reiterate that for a kid who loved to read, there was no greater place on earth than The New England Mobile Book Fair. It was a huge wholesale book warehouse in my hometown, and my mom’s favorite place to go. While she browsed the aisles looking for paperbacks by Ngaio Marsh, Barbara Pym, Dorothy Sayers, and MC Beaton, I would sit on the concrete floor, way in the back corner of the building, where the kids book series were (and also tons of those awesome invisible ink “yes and no” books. Those were amazing.) I bought box sets of paperbacks by Judy Blume, EB White, Daniel M Pinkwater, and John D Fitzgerald. I didn’t always know the books before I picked them out, but I figured if they were being sold in a set, they must be pretty good.

And that’s how I discovered The Great Brain. I had the box set with the first five books in the series: The Great Brain, More Adventures of The Great Brain, Me and My Little Brain, The Great Brain at the Academy, and The Great Brain Reforms.

These books are about John “JD” Fitzgerald, the youngest of three brothers (and later older brother to an adopted fourth brother) in rural Utah in the late 1800s. JD lives in the shadow of his brother Tom, “the Great Brain”, who he sees as a great thinker and problem solver, but who the rest of the town sees as a smart kid who is on his way to being a con man.

I loved these books. I can remember reading the first book at least 50 times. I was obsessed with one part in particular, when the boys’ friend Andy Anderson (I know!) steps on a rusty nail, has his leg amputated, and wants to die, because his dad thinks a boy with a peg leg is worthless. As a kid, I thought Tom’s solution to Andy’s situation was absolutely amazing.

As an adult, I was horrified by the whole thing. Tom conned Andy out of the one thing in his life he loved, his brand new erector set. He taught Andy how to walk, run, and balance himself, sure, but he still only did it for selfish reasons. Meanwhile, while Tom was trying to teach Andy how to relearn everything he already knew, JD was trying to help Andy commit suicide. Wow. I didn’t remember it being so dark.

And that’s pretty much the experience I had rereading these first 5 books.

Sure, Tom solves lots of problems, and even saves a few lives, which is great. But he only helps out for selfish reasons, usually involving money. Tom is obsessed with money and will do anything for a few dollars. He takes and takes and takes, and is shocked when, in the fifth book, all of the kids who have previously been cheated and swindled by Tom put him on trial and refuse to be his friend any longer. I only vaguely remember that part from my childhood, but it was most certainly my favorite part as an adult. Tom is, quite frankly, the worst.

Over the course of the books, here are a few of the “good deeds” that Tom does for the town: he saves two young boys who get lost in a cave, he finds his way home after his dad gets the boys lost on a camping trip, he saves the town from being completely ruined by a couple of real conmen, he organizes a funeral for the town’s beloved stray dog, sure, he does a few good things here and there. But most of the time, we find out after the fact, that Tom had selfish reasons to do so. Usually involving money, or the chance to make money.

And here are a few of the misguided, and awful things that Tom does: he prints a newspaper filled with nasty gossip and hearsay, he gets a teacher fired (by setting him up as an alcoholic) because the teacher was mean to him, he charges kids money for absurd things like looking at flushing toilet in his house (the first installed in town) or playing basketball in his yard, he swindles kids out of their most prized possessions just because he can, he cheats at games so he can win money, he lies to priests who are mean to him… Good god. I could go on and on.

All of the things that I thought were cool when I was a kid just infuriated me as an adult. And Tom’s parents annoyed me, too. Time and time again, Tom would assure them that he was “reformed” and “doing the right thing,” and they always believed him, until it was too late, and they realized he was conning them too.

The books are a fascinating slice of life at a certain time. The Fitzgerald family were Catholic in a mostly mormon area, and had to send their boys away to Salt Lake City after 6th grade in order to get a catholic education, and there was little to no understanding of other cultures or religions. There was a lot of fighting and name calling that would not be seen as acceptable if written today. Indoor plumbing and telephones were brand new. Taking a train was a big deal. Girls had to wear dresses all the time. And kids who didn’t do their chores or disrespected their parents, well, they got “whipped.”

The books were really interesting to reread after so many years. There were tons of parts I remembered vividly: JD getting the mumps on purpose so he could force his brothers to get them, too. The warning on the train to Salt Lake City that if you opened the window, you could get a burning cinder in your eye. Tom making a key out of a bar of soap and a whittled piece of wood. The Fitzgeralds getting a toilet installed in their house and being the laughingstocks of the town. Tom teaching the new kid from Greece how to be a real, American boy. Tom rubbing liver on the bottom of his shoes so that the dogs he was with would be able to find their way out of a dark cave. And JD learning to swim by his brothers just throwing him off of a diving board into a deep swimming hole.

But I really didn’t remember the big trial at the pinnacle of The Great Brain Reforms. Tom gets an idea to run a rafting business, so he and JD build a raft and charge kids for rides down the river. When it is clear that a storm is coming and the river levels are dangerously unsafe, Tom ignores all of the warnings, keeps running trips, and has a terrible accident, where a few of his friends almost die. After that, all of the kids from the previous books come together to complain about how he cheated them or stole from them, or caused them to be beaten or otherwise punished by their parents. They put on a makeshift trial, Tom is found guilty, and he returns everything that he has swindled from the other kids in town: sports equipment, coonskin caps, knives, air rifles, and assorted other toys and games. And Tom makes a big speech about feeling remorse and changing his ways, but we all know that those are just words, and Tom’s ‘great brain’ is already planning his next scheme.

I honestly can’t remember if I ever read the next two books in the series: The Return of the Great Brain and The Great Brain Does it Again, but I’ll try to see if I can get them on my kindle. I kind of need to know what happens to Tom after the trial and his “reformation”.

I’m so glad I resisted these classics. While I viewed them differently than I did as a kid, I still loved them. And I love the memories that the books brought back to me, the days shopping for books with my mom, and coming home with something new that I had discovered at the Book Fair.

03
Dec
21

What the Smuck? CBR13 Reviews 10 & 11.

While I have been COVID telecommuting, I have tried to get out in the early afternoon for a nice 45 minute walk. I’ve been listening to a bit of Stephen King while I walk — I’ve already read all of his books, so listening (even to the scary stuff) is somewhat easy and comforting. If I lose my train of thought, no big deal. The story just goes on.

This year, I listened to two books I had previously read, Lisey’s Story and ‘Salem’s Lot.

I first read Lisey’s Story when it was released in 2006, and thought it was pretty much the worst book King had ever written. But when Apple TV announced they had adapted it into a miniseries with Julianne Moore, and that King himself was working the screenplay, I decided to give it another chance.

Guess what?

Still the worst book King has ever written. Although King states that it is his favorite. I guess Uncle Stevie and this constant reader will just have to agree to disagree on this one.

I could have handled it if it had simply been a straightforward story about love, grief, fame, terror, abuse, and insanity. I could have even handled a story about a secret world that only some people had access to just by thinking about it (similar to flipping to The Territories in The Talisman, or using the doors in The Dark Tower).

But what I couldn’t stand was the language. The made up nonsense words that Scott used in his everyday patois. Smucking. Boo’ya Moon. Bool. Ugh. No. And the constant use of the term “baby love” just about drove me crazy.

I only lasted two episodes when I tried to watch the miniseries. I will not be revisiting it.

I had the complete opposite reaction to my reread of ‘Salem’s Lot.

I first read this so long ago, I can barely remember it. I’m pretty sure it was the third or fourth King book I ever read…so I’m guessing 8th grade?

We all know that ‘Salem’s Lot is about vampires. But what I had forgotten was that the vampire action doesn’t even start until halfway through the book. The first half of the story is filled with with King does better than just about any other writer out there today: descriptions of everyday life and regular people in a small town (in Maine, naturally). We get to know dozens of characters, and become familiar with the minutia of their lives. Some we like, and some we don’t, just like real life.

Which makes it all the more frightening when people start dying.

Its funny, the little bits that I remember from the first time I read this were only about the vampires. I didn’t remember anything about the town or its residents. My most vivid memory is of Danny Glick, hovering outside Mark Petrie’s window, begging to be let it. If I guessed, I would have said that scene happens at the beginning of the story, right after Barlow and Straker move to town. But that scene is more than halfway through the book. Strange how memory works.

I was also interested to read about Father Callahan, a major player in the Dark Tower books, as I couldn’t really remember what he was like in his life before the Calla. He was quite an interesting character. A man of god struggling with his faith and his sobriety, who joins the fight against Barlow and the vampires without a second thought, and fights bravely, until he is bested by Barlow, causing him to flee ‘Salem’s Lot and leaving his friends behind.

Its obvious that this book was written in the 1970s. There is a lot of sexism and many utterings of slurs that aren’t exactly considered politically correct these days. And the smoking! Everyone had cigarettes at the ready! But other than those relatively minor quibbles, the story holds up. And its still scary as hell.

24
Nov
21

Sometimes a Short Story is Just Enough, but Sometimes it Leaves You Wanting. CBR13 Reviews 7-9

I have been a very bad reviewer in 2021. I have been an amazing reader, with a list longer than any year I can remember. But sitting down to review has not been easy for me. I thought maybe I would try writing “bundles” of reviews, putting similar items together and knocking a few paragraphs out. Lets see how that goes.

In order of least liked, to most:

The Prince and the Troll. Blurb:

It’s fate when a man accidentally drops his phone off the bridge. It’s fortune when it’s retrieved by a friendly shape sloshing in the muck underneath. From that day forward, as they share a coffee every morning, an unlikely friendship blooms. Considering the reality for the man above, where life seems perfect, and that of the sharp-witted creature below, how forever after can a happy ending be?

I’m honestly not even sure what was going on here. A guy (we find out his name is Adam) drops his phone off of a bridge while he’s walking to work, and it is retrieved by a nice female troll, who happens to live in the muck beneath. They have a nice talk, and he starts to visit very day while walking to work and brings her fancy Starbucks drinks.

There’s a lot of allegory going on here. The water under the bridge is drying up, and the troll (and all of the other living things beneath the bridge) is drying up along with it. The ROAD over the bridge is to blame. Adam works on the ROAD, bringing progress to his world, while taking away from hers.

They drink a lot (A LOT. How much money does Adam spend at Starbucks?) of fancy coffee drinks while they talk and there are wizards and crows and I really don’t even know.

The story has the traditional Rowell fun banter, but it was heavier (see above: ALLEGORY) than I was expecting. Usually, when I finish a Rowell book/story, I want more. But this time, I was ok with it being done.

Second story: The Deal of a Lifetime. Blurb:

A father and a son are seeing each other for the first time in years. The father has a story to share before it’s too late. He tells his son about a courageous little girl lying in a hospital bed a few miles away. She’s a smart kid—smart enough to know that she won’t beat cancer by drawing with crayons all day, but it seems to make the adults happy, so she keeps doing it.

As he talks about this plucky little girl, the father also reveals more about himself: his triumphs in business, his failures as a parent, his past regrets, his hopes for the future.

Now, on a cold winter’s night, the father has been given an unexpected chance to do something remarkable that could change the destiny of a little girl he hardly knows. But before he can make the deal of a lifetime, he must find out what his own life has actually been worth, and only his son can reveal that answer.

I can’t think of anything by Fredrik Backman that I haven’t enjoyed. This was short and satisfying. (Bonus points for excellent narration from Santino Fontana).

A short snippet of life about a man who wasted his life obsessed with his career and money, while ignoring his wife and son. When he is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he starts to realize that perhaps there were better ways he could have lived his life. In the same hospital ward, there is a little girl, also with terminal cancer, who lives the life she still has only to make others happy.

The man comes in contact with a grim-reaper stand-in (the woman in the grey sweater), who offers him a deal…his life for the little girl’s life. And not just his life, but his entire existence. His son would not be his son. He would never know this man, would never have been disappointed by him, but still…they were father and son, and to completely disappear from the entire world’s memory is not something the man takes lightly.

As usual, with all of the Backman I’ve read, the characters are real, vibrant, honest people. Their lives are sometimes messy, but there is almost always a happy ending. This was a little less amusing that most of the Backman I’m familiar with (although, I would hardly call the Bear Town books hilarious), but it was poignant and emotional, and I recommend it.

My favorite of the three was If the Fates Allow, the brand new short story from Rainbow Rowell. Blurb:

Social distancing came easily to Reagan. Maybe a little too easily. She’s always liked people better from afar. But Reagan doesn’t want her grandpa to be alone for Christmas this year—he’s already spent too much time on his own in 2020. So she heads back to her hometown with a dish of holiday Jell-O salad, hoping they can have a little normalcy. Hoping it will be safe…

She isn’t expecting to run into the boy next door. Mason is all grown up now. He’s considerate. He’s funny. He doesn’t mind how prickly Reagan is—he maybe even likes it. And it makes Reagan feel like her defenses are falling. She needs her defenses, doesn’t she? In a time when six feet is close enough, how long can they keep their distance?

A COVID Christmas story featuring Reagan from Fangirl? YES, PLEASE AND THANK YOU.

Reagan was one of my favorite things about Fangirl. I loved her brashness and her unlikely friendship with Cath. Here we see how Reagan’s life has gone since she graduated from college (and we also get a snippet of what’s up with Cath and Levi). She works as an accountant and owns a house. She has few friends and has recently lost her beloved grandmother.

And then, COVID. Reagan locks down at home, unlike most of her family and friends. But she doesn’t want her grandfather to be alone for Christmas, so she quarantines for two weeks, masks up, and goes to his house for dinner, with her grandmother’s famous Jell-O salad in tow.

I could have read 900 pages about Reagan and COVID. About how mad she was at her family who didn’t distance or vaccinate, about how Mason was afraid of her in high school, and about what exactly goes into various Jell-O salads.

I spent a good deal of time googling recipes last night, and while I’m not in a hurry to try the green one she brings for Christmas 2020, I would for sure try the pretzel one she eats in 2021.

04
Jul
21

This is not the Deadspin writing I was expecting, and I am a million percent ok with that. CBR13 Review 6.

CBR13Bingo: Rep

Daniel lives in Athens, Georgia. He has a job working in customer service for a regional airline, which lets him work at home and set his own hours. He likes his routine: visits with his best friend, football tailgates, and nice mornings out on his porch before work starts for the day.

Early one morning, while out on his porch, Daniel sees something strange. He sees a young woman — he assumes she is a student — who doesn’t seem sure about where she is going. She waves to him in greeting. And then a car pulls up, the driver says something Daniel can’t hear, and she gets in and drives away. Daniel isn’t quite sure why he thinks that was out of the ordinary, but when he hears that a veterinary student from China has gone missing, he knows that was the woman he saw.

Daniel becomes obsessed with finding her, and with understanding who she is, where she came from, and why she might have gotten in that car.

Oh. 

And by the way.

Daniel has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (he calls it Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but for kids). He can’t walk, eat, or talk. He’s in a wheelchair, and can only move one hand well enough to steer, to type on his iPad, and to work on his computer.

In the afterword of the story, Will Leitch explains that his son has a friend with SMA, a disease he previously didn’t know much about. After getting to know his son’s friend, Leitch did a lot of research on SMA, and it shows. 

The details about the disease are both fascinating and heartbreaking. We know Daniel will never get better, and will probably get a little bit worse every day. But we also know that kids who are born with SMA today have a better chance at life than kids born just a few years ago. The treatment protocol is always improving, but its too late to help Daniel.

But Daniel can still help to find the missing woman, Ai-Chen. With a little help from Reddit, his amazing caretaker, Marjani, and his best friend, Travis, Daniel won’t stop investigating until he knows that Ai-Chen is safe.

And here comes the cliche: Daniel is so much more than what people see when they look at him. While he may be physically limited in any/all of his daily activities, he does not let SMA define him. When people — like Travis’ girlfriend — get to know him, they realize he is kind, smart, charming, and funny. You can’t help but root for him.

I really enjoyed this one, and it was not at all what I had expected. All I knew about Leitch before reading this was that he used to be the Editor of Deadspin. I expected some “Tom Brady is a fancy dog” jokes, some outlandish lacrosse guy names, a breakdown of the holiday Williams Sonoma catalog, and maybe a story similar to that of Manti Te’o and his made-up girlfriend.

But this was not that. This was not only an excellent mystery, but had great characters, was sometimes hilariously funny and other times heartbreakingly sad, and taught me about SMA, which I most definitely was ignorant about. Thanks to Stephen King for his late-night tweet congratulating Leitch and recommending it, which led me to download it right then and there.




Categories

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 40 other subscribers

Twitter Updates