1. Quesadillas by Juan Pablos Villalobos
I really enjoyed this quick little angry rant. Juan Pablo Villalobos is brilliant, witty, and dark. Quesadillas is a novella taking place in a small town in Mexico, featuring a 13-year-old boy that feels very much like the author's young self. This may be due in large part to the fact that the novel is supposed to be written by the boy, but 20'ish years later. Consequently, the narrator has the vocabulary and awareness of someone in their 30s, but the telling of the story itself has the maturity of a teen.
It's fun, funny (laugh-out-loud funny), smart, dark, and thought provoking. While poking at his own country of origin, Villalobos also opens the window into the inner-workings, thought processes, and difficulties of the poor/middle-class-poor of Mexico's rural communities.
Villalobos plays around with the magical realism that his country is known for, while still keeping his head above waters with a psychological smirk on his face. It was a pleasure reading Quesadillas.
Definitely recommend, but with the "warning" that the narrator is dark and crass. Very crass. But funny. FOUR of five stars.
2. The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling
Ahh, I think I've been avoiding this review.
In two words, I would say this book is "Devastating Masterpiece." It's devastating. It's brilliant. And, oh, by the way, it is NOTHING like Harry Potter.
As I've said to many people since finishing the book, it's best to think about this as by a different author altogether. Trying to put the Rowling-you-know into this book just creates a disjointedness that is hard to reconcile. Take it separately.
Rowling has a knack for characters. I really don't know how she does it. She has created a world of peoples inside this tiny English village abutting a city that you feel like you know. The "main characters" range in age from their mid-teens to their mid-sixties or seventies... And they're all just as believable as the next. And they are all so very very flawed.
Superficially, this book is about someone dying in this small town in England, leaving open a vacancy in the town government. What happens next is a whirlwind of activity as the two "sides" in the town vie for the open seat.
In this book, you name it and Rowling's probably covered it. Assuming what you're naming is dark and desperate. While I disagree that she felt the need to "prove herself" by covering so much hard and gritty ground, as some reviewers had suggested, it did almost feel at times as if the darker side of life was fighting to get out, and it all landed in this book. I mean, seriously: drugs, sex, rape, adultery, jealousy, hatred, fear, abuse, etc. It's there.
Nevertheless, somehow Rowing creates a story about the human condition of hope. With peoples you know. And in this normal, run-of-the-mill life story, extraordinary circumstances occur. Brilliant. Devastating. Hopeful.
FOUR AND A HALF of five stars (but inching toward 5, so 5 on those sites w/o half stars :))
3. The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
Wonderful elementary and middle-school level book. Highly recommended.
The protagonist is an eighth grader who has lost her mother to an alien invasion.
The book takes the form of an essay being written by the girl to explain what Smekday really means to her... The winner will have their essay included in a time capsule to be opened 100 years in the future.
So Gratuity ("Tip") Tucci begins her story. She's funny, witty, and mature, while still having the light-heartedness and hopefulness of a, well, a middle-schooler.
She first goes into the "what happened"... then the "what next" when her teacher urges her to include more personal reflection.
Tip, her alien (Boov) compadre "J-Lo," and her cat all set out to first save themselves and then to save the world.
It's light, fun, quick, and cute. It's original, thoughtful, and funny. Well-populated by a wide variety of characters with their own personalities, this book is a gem that I'm glad I've discovered!
Definitely recommend for elementary (high level) and middle school readers looking for something new...
FOUR of five stars.
4. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
I am so glad this was recommended to me. What an absolutely lovely collection of letters.
I had no idea what this was about when I started reading it. I did not know that it was an actual series of correspondence (or, portions of it) between two actual people in an actual life.
Helene Hanff, a write in New York, begins her correspondence to the bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road in London in 1949, seeking a better set and quality of books than what she has been able to find locally.
Frank Doel takes on the task of fulfilling Helene's requests and corresponding with her.
What develops, however, is a real 20-year friendship between not only Frank and Helene, but several other bookstore employees and their family members.
It is at times funny, at times moving, and always just lovely. I loved this book. I highly recommend to anyone who loves books!
FIVE of five stars.
**Note: I was so eager to see the movie (made in the late 70s) after reading this book.... Ultimately, it was also lovely, but it took more than half the movie for me to adjust my expectations of who the characters were... In my mind, there was more of a playfulness to the people than the movie portrayed. Although I don't recommend against the movie, perhaps following up with the movie right after finishing the book wasn't my best move...