Jemima J: A Novel about Ugly Ducklings and Swans - Review by Carole

Whether it's a book on a struggling basketball team, a down-and-out boxer getting a second chance, or the girl next door getting the guy of her dreams, I'm a sucker for a root-for-the-underdog story. You can't get more underdog than Jemima J.

Plagued by her weight and all of the issues that go with that, Jemima J has never really had much love in her life. Then the Internet comes along (I know, I know--this book came out in 1999--it's actually kind of charming to read about someone experiencing the phenomenon that is the Worldwide Web for the first time. It really drives home what an integral part of our lives being online really has become. You think, "It seems like a million years ago that we didn't have e-mail or websites on anything you can imagine and some you would never have dreamed!")

The Internet changes everything for Jemima. She starts to take control of her life, and while she is doing that, she meets someone online. She has the opportunity to re-invent herself (she becomes JJ) for this person she has never met. And while you can see where this is going (she's going to have to meet the person eventually and she'll either have to own up to the lies or actually become the person she's pretending to be).

As she works all of this out, your heart goes out to her, and you wish the best for her. She makes many, many relationship rookie mistakes that we can see coming, but are powerless to stop. The author acknowledges this to us in clever little asides.

I would call this story Bridget Jones' Diary Lite (diet reference intentional). The British humor, expressions, and outlooks make the mistakes and foibles of those in relationships seem more charming than if this were an American tale. Why? I don't know, but it's true--at least for me.

This book can be devoured in a single reading. It was the perfect dessert to my less-than-satifying entree (my book club book--more to come on that later this week). It's helping me to digest a great deal of imagery that I wish I did NOT have in my head.

The book makes you feel like you should go work out, while at the same time makes you crave a bacon sandwich. Any book that can do that is worth a read!


Anansi Boys - Review by Chris

In Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman continues with an interesting (if not somewhat minor) character from his earlier (and very highly recommended) novel, American Gods.

Anansi the spider god is a trickster — and certainly not the traditional European diety. As Anansi creates lore, the original dweller of the earth also creates this world.

Fat Charlie is not fat — but as he notes, any nickname his father give, sticks. His father…. Well, the stories Charlie tells paint quite a picture. Rosie insists Charlie invite his father to their pending nuptials and, despite his best effort, he can’t: his father’s sudden and spectacular demise at a local karaoke bar is, as with all of his stunts, now legend.

Charlie's encounter with the neighborhood ladies provide him with a surprise: he has a brother. The second surprise comes from Mrs. Higgler, who tells him (almost furtively) that to contact his brother, “Tell a spider.” And anyone who has told a spider anything knows that just spells trouble. (Ask Charlotte.)

Reality is not what it seems when his brother Spider appears — not that Charlie’s reality is a thrill a minute. Easily embarrassed, he won’t even sing to himself in case someone hears him. He takes the safe route with his career, his relationships, his home, everything in his life. An accountant by trade, he works at a respectable firm, makes enough money, suffers indignities quietly and figures that he’ll move on when the time is right.

Spider changes all of that.

When Charlie has had enough, the neighborhood ladies give him advice and help him make a change.

But it’s too late. Nothing is the same. It may be at least in part because of Spider, but it’s more than just Spider. Charlie is not himself. Neither is Rosie. Come to think of it, neither is Daisy, a person Charlie and Spider met by chance and whose involvement in the fray is as much a blessing as a curse. And Spider — well, a sudden fear of birds is the least of his worries. Throw in a hidden room, an angry and vengeful duppy, false passports, ruthless rich, a dark wine cellar and a lime, and life is never the same.

Anyone who’s willing to fully suspend their disbelief and go for a great ride will never regret reading this incredibly fun book.

American Gods is not a necessary preamble, but it will introduce to the reader Gaiman’s ability to make sense out of what would remain the absurd in another writer’s hands. One cannot get tired of the playful and masterful use of language, story and character in Gaiman’s books.

Then, when you read Good Omens (and you will), you will recognize the very enjoyable and successful voice of an excellent contemporary author whose work you will follow for the rest of your life.


The Brief History of the Dead - Review by Chris

Based on folklore, Kevin Brockmeier breathes life into a hopeful possibility of what awaits us after we shuffle off this mortal coil. According to legend, we continue to exist for as long as one living person has a memory of us when we were alive.

In The Brief History of the Dead, every person who encounters you, who keeps a memory of you in her or his mind, gives you a place in the City of the Dead. It’s a true city with mass transit, sidewalks, a newspaper, trash collection, apartment buildings and employment. It can be similar to the life you just left, or you can choose to live out a desire or dream. You can encounter a beloved friend or spouse, you can open the business you always wanted, you can share your faith on the street, you can hide from your family from shame of your suicide — everyone has something they always wanted to do or something they carried with them.

As we discover this city, we also meet Laura Byrd, who is part of an exploration party in Antarctica seeking pure water from glaciers for Coca Cola. This story takes place in a near future which is as inhospitable as the Antarctic: cruel, cold and unforgiving. The isolation is even more stark in Laura’s world where information and connection are even more immediate than they are now.

The chapters are interwoven, and we become familiar with both Laura and the people of the city. One city dweller in particular carries the narrative: Luka, a newspaper publisher. It is through him we learn about the city and its inhabitants, and the arrival of the panicked virologist. With his death, everything on Earth and in the city changes — except for Laura, who comes to that realization slowly and, finally, with a true understanding of what it means to her. She and the inhabitants of the city are intertwined in a way no one on Earth could ever imagine.

The book had a fabulous story: a simultaneous look at life and the afterlife. And it was a huge success — up to the chapter near the end titled “The Marbles.” At that point, the author introduced an element that didn’t jive with the rest of the book. Because of "The Marbles," the ending made little sense without days of pondering and reflection (which is unsatisfactory in and of itself). Had I completely skipped "The Marbles," I’d have been thrilled with the book and would have insisted everyone I know read it.

In all, I enjoyed the book, and I recommend it — just lose the marbles. You won’t miss a thing except a little confusion, and we can all do with less of that.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Review by Carole

Our Harry Potter picnic was rained out this year, but it didn’t stop us. We moved our picnic indoors, and we sat around and talked about the last of the Harry Potter novels, eating Chris' Dementors Demise cupcakes.

We were four 40-something adults, a couple of teenagers, and a college student, and we were all talking at once more often than not. Trying to get someone to listen to what you had to say was a challenge. Everyone had extremely strong views on so many topics, and you wanted to say your piece before you lost your train of thought.

My kids are the perfect ages to have grown up with this series. It is a ride that we all willingly took together, impatiently waiting for the next leg of the journey. We read all of the Harry Potter books aloud, which isn’t easy to do when you’re crying. Many was the time that everyone had to wait for me to collect myself as I wiped away tears and waiting for the quaver in my voice to subside.

The following questions and answers touch on the high spots of our conversation, but plot spoilers abound, so beware.

What made you cry?

Hedwig, Dobby, Mrs. Weasley giving Harry the watch, Hagrid carrying Harry’s body out of the Forbidden Forest, Fred, Ron speaking up for the house elves, Harry wanting his mother by his side as he prepared to lay his life down, Oliver Wood with Colin Creevey.

What did you love?

Ron coming back, Mrs. Weasley being underestimated by Bellatrix Lestrange, Harry getting to talk to Dumbledore, Hermione’s beaded bag and her ability to always think about what needs to be done, Neville killing the basilisk, Luna’s kindness, Dudder’s halting realization that he owed Harry much, Percy’s redemption, everyone coming through the portrait to join the battle, Ron speaking Parseltongue, Harry fixing his wand, finding out Snape’s story and why Dumbledore was always so sure about him

What didn’t you get?

Why did Harry have the choice of whether to come back—was it because he was the Master of Death? Why did Harry have to lose Hedwig? Why were Tonks and Lupin so irresponsible? How does George get on with his life? Why the good guys would not use the unforgivable curses even though it meant having to fight the bad guys time and again.

Were you satisfied?

Resoundingly, our crowd was. If the epilogue did not provide enough details for you, check out this interview that J.K. Rowling did shortly after the book was released (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19959323).


The Ruins - Review by Chris

In a New York Times ad for The Ruins, Stephen King states that he found it a scary read. I wanted to see what frightens a man whose novel about vampires prompted me to wear a cross in seventh grade. I also had liked Scott Smith's story A Simple Plan (whose screenplay was amazing and taut.)

I did not get the horror novel I expected.

Rather, I got a very well-crafted character-driven suspense novel with horror elements, and excellent summer fare. This book should be consumed while the reader feels perspiration trickle between her shoulder blades and a glass of iced tea sweats on the table next to her. (Sandy beach optional.) I read this book as a palate cleanser before I started some of the more intense novels and involved non-fictions in my stack, and I got what I bargained for.

I just wish it had started faster.

After about 40 pages of character development — and only Stephen King's endorsement spurring me on — the players finally get busy: four Americans on holiday in CancĂșn volunteer to help a new German friend retrieve his brother from the unmet youth's ill-advised side trip to Mayan ruins. They are joined by a Greek who knows no English but is well-versed in the Language of Tequila.

Along the way, they get Clues: a bad beginning, awkward warnings from strangers, blocked and hidden paths. None of these change their course and they discover, too late, why the Mayan-speaking residents of the small village near the ruins were waving them away — and why a single step sealed their fate.

Smith’s writing is like embroidery: each strand is vital and contributes to the image. In The Ruins, he wanted to make sure we knew the characters before the action began because the characters are what compel the story.

However, I want my character development as part of the action. The tension between the characters, how they accept the reality of their situation, how they act in adversity — that all comes from the action. Spoiled twenty-somethings getting drunk on the beach do not interest me. An Eagle Scout who tries to remember the important points of distilling urine does.

I want my suspense or horror stories to grip me from the beginning or I may not trust the author to deliver the scary stuff. I do not need the monster to show up on page one, but I need the author to show me there is a path to the monster that starts on page one.

The Ruins is definitely worth reading — but as a library read, or a book I'd buy for a dime at a library sale for a beach house bookshelf.



Chris: Hello, and welcome to Get Your English On!

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