Button, Button: uncanny stories

Matheson, Richard

 

Tor Books, New York. 2008. 208 p.

 

Well, I don’t know where to begin or end with this book. I will say my reading of it started out very promisingly. It came highly recommended from a co-worker who I thought had flawless taste in books, and when I heard this author wrote I Am Legend and the first story from this collection, “Button, Button” is going to be a major motion picture, I really thought it couldn’t be better. Maybe I was wrong.

 

The book is basically a written version of the Twilight Zone. These stories were originally published in the 1950s and 60s, so they definitely has the Zone feel about them. You know, twisted stories that start off mundane and become horrifying or plain bizarre. So at first I was intrigued and excited. I like a good suspense or thriller. Sadly, I fear this book contains much of either.

 

The collection begins with “Button, Button,” which had so much promise, but I was disappointed almost immediately because I knew exactly how the story was going to end. It may have been quite shocking back in the 50s, but nowadays, I feel like people have read or seen almost every twist imaginable. I still read the story, but I can’t say I did because I was intrigued. I just wanted to try and finish the book. (Note: I didn’t finish it. I hate to put a book up here that I didn’t even finish, but in a way I think it’s worth noting the book still, because maybe not being able to finish something is just as helpful of a review as one that raves about a book.)

 

The next story was not quite as predictable, but at a point you kind of know where it’s going. Again, it may have been ahead of its time 40 years ago, but I don’t think it carries as much punch now. It’s called “Girl of My Dreams” and follows a woman who has dreams of future happenings, usually involving total strangers who encounter terrible endings. Her husband exploits her abilities for money by finding the people whom she has dreamt about and tells them if they pay them, his wife will tell them how they meet their ends so they can avoid the situation. The husband is cold and mean to his wife, and only feigns affection so she will stay with him and continue sharing her dreams with him. Let’s just say, this story doesn’t end well for anybody.

 

So it was after this story that I was already a little tired of Matheson’s book. I was talking to some of my co-workers about the stories and my dissatisfaction, and one of them who had read a little further told me about one of the subsequent ones I hadn’t gotten to yet. After she told me the whole story, I remained unimpressed with the book, so I decided to give up ever finishing it. I usually finish books I begin, but with this one I felt like there is so much more to read out there, so why waste my time with this one. Part of me wants to finish, and I may someday, but if I’m going to be honest, this one just doesn’t do it for me. I’m interested to see what the movie version of “Button, Button” (it will be called “The Box” and it’s scheduled to come out in 2009) will be like, because to me it seems challenging to make a full length movie out of this premise, but hey, by 2009, I may have finished Button, Button and loved it.

Outside Beauty

Kadohata, Cynthia

 

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York. 2008. 265 p.

For a long time I never touched YA books. In school I had basically gone from juvenile to adult reading, and YA just got lost in the mix. Even working in the library wasn’t enough to make me want to read a YA book. I knew friends and colleagues who did, but it just didn’t interest me. I thought of YA as mostly chick lit filled with flirty romances and superficial issues. Well, I’ve proven myself wrong yet again with the latest book I’ve read, Outside Beauty by Cynthia Kadohata. A lot of the books I’ve covered in this blog have been YA and I’m happy to say that. YA may have been only about teen romance and melodrama in the past, but it seems the new YA book being produced really deal with deeper issues that even adult readers can relate to.

Outside Beauty mainly tackles the issue of; guess what, beauty, in all of its forms. But it also deals with race, sexuality, and family in a very delicate and touching way. Our main character is Shelby, a twelve year old who has three other sisters: Maddie, who’s six; Lakey, who’s eight; and Marilyn, who’s fifteen. The catch here is, they all have different fathers. Their mother, Helen, is a beautiful Japanese woman who collects men the way young girls collect stickers or dolls. She is stunning and she knows it, and she can never stay in one relationship too long. All the girls live with their mother in an apartment in Chicago and get along incredibly well considering their diverse origins. Though the girls’ fathers are very different, once we meet them all we see why Helen fell in love, except for Maddie’s father, Mr. Bronson, who is a severe and rigid man, who does eventually prove to be human after all near the end of the novel.

The book opens in the summer of 1983 with Helen and her daughters running away from yet another man who has become too love sick for Helen’s taste. The ladies are off to visit Lakey’s father, Larry, who to me seems like the sweetest and most likable of all the fathers. He also seems to be the one Helen may still love. He obviously still has feelings for her, too, but he understandably wants Helen to settle down with him in California, something she may never be capable of doing with her personality. The girls are happy to be on another adventure with their mother, but really, their mother is always running from her problems rather than facing them, and that is her biggest issue throughout the book.

Things get complicated when Maddie’s aggressive and somewhat vindictive father Mr. Bronson starts threatening Helen for custody of Maddie. Helen doesn’t tell the girls too much of what’s going on, but it’s obvious this is a man with authority and money, and he may be able to beat Helen in this battle. Helen believes she can stay one step ahead of Mr. Bronson until she is involved in an unexpected (to the reader) accident and the lives of her four girls screech to a devastating halt.

Of the four girls, Shelby does seem like the best choice for the narrator, though Lakey seems like she would be a character I’d like to have learned more about. We get to know Marilyn and Maddie pretty well, but Lakey sometimes fades into the background. Shelby describes herself as quiet and shy, and she is. But the real reason she is the best narrator is because she is the one daughter who really sees that there is more to life and a person than outside beauty. Shelby is not the most glamorous or pretty of the girls, and this enables her to see the bigger picture and dream of a life without being judged by looks. It’s a world her mother and her sisters cannot imagine, but Shelby longs for. It seems by the end of the book that some of the characters have remained the same, but we have watched Shelby mature into an intelligent and pensive young girl who truly knows and understands herself, and probably the people around her better than they know themselves.

Elsewhere

Zevin, Gabrielle

 

Farrar Straus Giroux, New York. 2005. 276 p.

 

Dying. It’s inevitable, yes, but is it something any of us like to think about? I don’t think so. It’s an especially hard subject matter for young people who think that they’re untouchable and yet as youth stretches on, they begin to realize one day this will all still come to an end. We are always struck hard when a young person dies, but do we ever stop to think how they must feel, if they can still feel at all once they’re gone? Elsewhere fills in that gap with such intelligence and sensitivity that I would like to think this place, Elsewhere, really exists.

 

The book opens with its main character, Elizabeth Hall, a fifteen-year-old average girl, dead. She was riding her bike when she was hit by a car and finally died when her parents had to pull the plug on her after she never woke up from a coma. As you can imagine, she doesn’t even realize she’s dead at first when she wakes up on a boat with no memory of how she got there. Her hair is all shaved off and there is a C-shaped scar above one of her ears, and she remembers being in an accident, but she simply thinks she is dreaming. When she looks around her room on the boat, she sees another teenage girl sleeping in the bunk above hers and wakes her up to try and figure out what’s going on. The other girl’s name is Thandi, and she has a gaping bullet hole in the back of her head. The girls wander around the ship and seem to only see old people all around. As they’re exploring, Liz sees Curtis Jest, the lead singer of her favorite band, Machine. Curtis’ arm is covered in bruises and wounds, which Liz later figures out are from heroin use. As time slips on, Liz begins putting the pieces together, and by the time the boat reaches the dock at Elsewhere, she knows she is dead. Liz’s deceased grandmother, Betty, whom she has never met since Liz was a baby when Betty died from cancer, is there to meet her. Understandably, Liz has a tough time adjusting to life in Elsewhere. She misses her friends and family, and she knows she’ll never get to have a normal life of boyfriends, marriage, babies, and a driver’s license now that she’s dead. The good news for Liz is, not everything is impossible now that she’s in Elsewhere.

 

Liz learns to cope with death, which in Elsewhere is made interesting by the fact that you age backward until you are a baby again and are then sent back to Earth to live a new life. She slowly makes peace with her death and the man who killed her; she makes new friends, and discovers talents she never knew she had. Naturally none of this comes easy to Liz initially, but we get to see her grow and mature even as she begins aging backwards.

 

I love how fresh and interesting this book is. At its core, Elsewhere is simply a novel, but Zevin takes a little bit of straight fiction and adds some fantasy to make a compelling story. At points Liz is a “typical” teenage girl, which can always be a little draining, but overall she’s a likable and relatable person. The love story part in the book kind of bummed me out a little, just because I could have seen it going a different way, but in the end everything works out they way it is meant to. Death is one of the worst parts of life, if not THE worst of course, but Zevin presents a unique look at death and may make teenage readers think a little harder about their own lives and mortality.

Monsters of Templeton

Groff, Lauren

 

Voice/Hyperion, New York. 2008. 364 p.

 

So it’s not often that I’m caught reading an adult book in my current life as a member of the children’s department, but this book definitely caught my attention and was able to keep it, which is saying something. Once you start reading a lot of children’s books, it’s harder to get into adult books because the pacing is much slower and themes more complex. This book is not a light weight in either way, but it’s Groff flawed characters and twisting plot that keep you coming back.

 

The story centers on our main character, Wilhelmina Sunshine Upton, a borderline misanthrope who returns to her home town of Templeton, New York (based off of Cooperstown) pregnant with her married professor’s baby. Adding to Willie’s stress and general anxiety, her best friend Clarissa is sick with lupus and basically dying miles away in California, and she finds out that her real father lives in Templeton and is not some mystery hippie from her mom’s wild past in San Francisco. To say the least, she’s kinda in a pickle. Clarissa doesn’t want Willie’s help even though her husband’s nerves are nearly shot taking care of her all by himself. Willie’s mom, Vi, won’t help her find her father because she secretly understands Willie is the type of person who has to do the research herself. Willie herself is still love sick with the philandering professor and seems to still attract more men on her return to Templeton, whether she likes them or not. Oh! And I’ve almost forgotten the monster in the lake (think Loch Ness) that is a strange part of Templeton and its people.

 

Just from this you can see the story is already complicated enough. Add to all this a rich (and sometimes convoluted and outlandish) family history involving numerous generations and a ghost that haunts the centuries-old cottage Willie grew up in. Groff switches back and forth between the present with Willie’s voice and the past with the voices from Willie’s ancestors and predecessors, sometimes losing me, other times giving me a tightly woven narrative filled with so many detailed characters I wonder how she kept them all straight.

 

This is the one of those epic books that may take you a while to finish, but when you finally do, you almost want to go back to the beginning and this time take notes to make sure you appreciate what Groff has created in this magical world of Templeton. It’s hard to get me to read an adult book nowadays, not to mention finish AND like one, but this one succeeded.

Not a Box

Portis, Antoinette

 

HarperCollins, New York. 2006. 32 p.

 

Let me begin by saying this is one of my favorite books ever. It’s a strong statement, to be sure, but I mean it. This book is so simple that it’s genius. The design complements the story and vice versa, in a nicely done story for kids.

 

This book has two “characters”: the narrator or questioner and the bunny with the active imagination. The bunny has found himself a box which he imagines to be all sorts of things like a race car, space ship, a mountain, and more. Every time the questioner sees the bunny the questions begin. “Why are you sitting in a box?” “Now you’re wearing a box?” And every time the bunny replies, “It’s not a box.”

 

I’m sure there isn’t a child who hasn’t imagined an empty box to be all sorts of play things, and this book reminds us all of those simpler days. I love the dialogue between the questioner and the bunny, and I can see it being really fun to read aloud with a child. The illustrations are clean and simple and so is the premise. It’s simply perfect.

Manneken Pis: a simple story of a boy who peed on a war

Radunsky, Vladimir

 

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York, 2002. 32 p.

 

This is one wacky, and of course then naturally true, story of a little Belgian boy who is caught up in a war in his home town. And he ends the war, by peeing all over it. Yep. True story!

 

The little boy is nameless, but his nickname, Manneken Pis, means “peeing boy.” So let’s just call him Pis. So the book begins with Pis and his happy little life with his mother and father who love him very much. But then war comes to their scenic little town and Pis is separated from his parents. One day while he is looking for them, he has to go and can’t wait, so he pees all over the place. Both sides of the war can’t help but laugh, and soon the battle is over all thanks to Pis’ bladder.

 

The story is definitely unique, and the illustrations are abstract and colorful. It might not be fully appropriate for really young children, but slightly older kids (maybe 5 and up) will get a kick out of it for sure.

Mr. Pusskins: A Love Story and Mr. Pusskins and Little Whiskers: Another Love Story

Lloyd, Sam

 

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York. 2006 & 2007. 32 p.

 

I will say this knowing full well the repercussions this statement could possibly have (and knowing this is why I write this blog fairly anonymously): I am not a cat person. Sigh. There you go. I said it.

 

It’s not that I don’t like cats or anything. The main reason we don’t mix is that I’m allergic to them. Beyond that, I guess I’m just a dog person. Odd for a library employee, I know, since it seems being a librarian and cat lover are synonymous. But that’s that. Let’s move on.

 

Mr. Pusskins and the sequel are pretty darn cute. Mr. Pusskins is (you guessed it) a cat. When we first meet him, he’s a rather grumpy cat who doesn’t appreciate the love his owner Emily bestows upon him. She strokes his fur and tries to play games with him, but he is just not having it. So he decides to run off and be a bad cat, hanging with the wrong crowd and leaving Emily worried sick. Of course there’s a happy ending, but it’s a fun journey getting there and teaching kids there’s no place like home.

 

Mr. Pusskins and Little Whiskers is along the lines of pretty much all classic children’s tales of the old curmudgeon and the sweet little newbie. There’s nothing particularly new here, but Little Whiskers is adorable and I never get tired of seeing little creatures pulling and tugging on bigger, grumpier creatures. But there is a small twist. Little Whisker isn’t quite as sweet as Emily thought she was. She begins tearing up the whole house, and Mr. Pusskins is the one who gets blamed. Both cats end up learning a lesson about truth and friendship, and it’s done in a gentle and fun way for kids to really get in to.

 

Cat-lover or not, Mr. Pusskins and Little Whiskers are two cute kitties.

Eggs

Spinelli, Jerry

 

Little, Brown and Company, New York. 2007. 220 p.

 

“Friendship isn’t always sunny-side up.” That’s the tag line for Eggs, one of Spinelli’s more recent novels for grade schoolers. I remember reading some of his books back when I was in grade school, but to be honest they didn’t real do it for me then. Have I changed my mind now? Well… kind of. I had heard mixed reviews from some of my coworkers, but I decided to give it a chance. Admittedly, it was slow going at first. I couldn’t really get into the story of a young boy who has lost his mother in a tragic accident and now lives with his grandmother, only seeing his dad maybe a couple of times a month. It sounds good, I know, but still. It didn’t grab me. I guess about a quarter into the book I was finally interested. I won’t say I was riveted or gripped or anything that dramatic, but I did start to care about David and his new friend, or as we may say nowadays, ‘frenemy,’ Primrose. Where David is cautious and rule-abiding (except any rule or even suggestion from his grandmother), Primrose is reckless and rebellious. Primrose has a single mother who calls herself a psychic, but not a very good one. They live in a little house that is much too small for their oversized personalities, so Primrose makes an old van in their driveway her room. Primrose, annoying as she is, does add a bit of zing to David and his story. Without her, David himself is not a terribly compelling character. But Primrose is wild and loves to push buttons, and straight-laced David needs someone like that. His grandmother is sweet and tries to get him to talk, but because he is only 9 and is going through a traumatic event most children are lucky enough to never experience, David doesn’t care and doesn’t try to act nice in the least. This doesn’t make David the most sympathetic character ever written, but Primrose forces him to show his vulnerable side to us in the end.

 

Taking two annoying characters and thrusting them into the lead roles in book, especially one for kids, can be tricky. Maybe as an adult I was initially just bothered by David and Primrose’s bad behavior, or maybe not even a 10-year-old would love this book at the beginning. But, it’s one of those books that if you stick with it, you may just end up liking it, just like David and Primrose’s feelings for each other evolve by the end.

Sleepwalk

Tomine, Adrian

 

Drawn & Quarterly Publications, Montreal. 1998. 102 p.

 

It’s been a while since I’ve read an adult book from start to finish, and this was a completely different book than I usually read anyway. I start with that because maybe it can help explain why I felt the way I did reading this graphic novel.

 

The book is a collection of short stories all involving people with issues, simply put. There are twin teenage sisters who have nothing in common any more, a loser guy exploiting his summer job, couples who can’t connect or just plain make it, and a variety of loners, nobodies, and socially awkward people.

 

I can’t say for sure if I liked this book or not, if that’s not ambiguous enough for you. I like the idea of a collection of vignettes about different people in really average situations, because it’s quiet and thoughtful. However, some stories border on pointless or even painful to me. I’m the first to say I’m not a big fan of “dark” stories, and a lot of these stories are on the darker side, but there were just parts that rubbed me the wrong way, dark or not. I will say one of the best stories was the one called “Lunch Break” about love lost. It’s gentle and sweet and because it’s so understated, it is all the more touching.

 

Overall, it’s a noteworthy graphic novel worth reading if even as a short read between your major novel reading. I like graphic novels that focus on real life rather than super heroes, and this is an excellent example of that.

Miracle’s Boys

Woodson, Jacqueline

 

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. 2000. 133 p.

 

Sorry to do two books in a row by the same author, but Woodson has cast her spell on me and I can’t get enough of her style and characters. Locomotion hooked me, what can I say.

 

Miracle’s Boys is similar in many ways to Locomotion, but the major difference is the age this book is targeted at. This is a Young Adult book, and it deals with more complex themes than Locomotion, although there is death for young people to cope with in this book, too. Our narrator is Lafayette, a twelve year old boy who lives with his older brothers Ty’ree and Charlie after tragedy has struck their family twice. Ty’ree works hard to support his brothers and has given up many of his own dreams to make sure his younger brothers have a decent life. Lafayette understands how much Ty’ree cares and tries to be a good younger brother, but Charlie has changed in the last few years. After getting mixed up with the wrong crowd, Charlie was sent away to a home for at-risk boys and comes home changed, as is reflected by Lafayette’s name for him upon his return: Newcharlie. Charlie loved animals and though he had some hot-headed tendencies, was a decent boy. But Newcharlie doesn’t care about anything or anyone, including his brothers. Newcharlie is not the older brother Lafayette loved.

 

The story goes through the changes all three brothers experience in the time after Newcharlie returns home. Their roles as St. Ty’ree, Newcharlie, and the little angel Lafayette all change by the end of the book. Woodson never sugarcoats the experience of three young boys trying to make it on their own in New York City without parents to guide them. She shows readers in this book that bad and good aren’t always as clear as we’d like them to be, and sometimes you have to fall down completely to rise back up.