KILLING ME SOFTLY WITH JOKES: Bream Gives Me the Hiccups by Jesse Eisenberg

Bream Gives Me the Hiccups by Jesse Eisenberg
Grove Press, 256 pages
Release date: September 8, 2015

BreamHiccupsCoverYou may remember Jesse Eisenberg’s breakout performance in the riveting 2005 film The Squid and the Whale. Or, perhaps his more popular role in The Social Network that landed him on the Best Actor nominee list in 2011. He’s clearly a talented actor who can deliver smart dialogue on cue. It’s no surprise that Eisenberg also has an inclination for creative writing pursuits. He’s published short stories in respected literary magazines (The New Yorker, McSweeney’s). Sounds like he could whip up a promising collection of short stories, right? That’s what I thought when I received my galley of Bream Gives Me the Hiccups (it hits American and Canadian bookstores on September 8th). I must admit, what he produced disappointed me.

The first story “Restaurant Reviews from a Privileged Nine-Year-Old” is a stellar narrative featuring a series of poignant vignettes written by a precocious boy with a believable, aching voice. Our insightful narrator shares moments of clarity like, “lies are for adults who are sad in their lives.” He comes to such realizations by spending a lot of time with his newly-divorced mother in restaurants. When his mother lies to him and to others, she “doesn’t just say things she doesn’t mean, she says the opposite of the things she does mean.” He’s a witness. He’s an accomplice. He’s a victim. He’s just a child who wants to be loved. I could’ve read an entire book comprised of such vignettes.

Unfortunately, the remaining stories do not measure up to that first one. Sure, Eisenberg alludes to historical events—like the Bosnian Genocide—and laces each page with acerbic humor. He’s clearly intelligent and funny. He’s also trying very hard to make the reader realize that he’s clever. And hip. And the master of satire. It becomes exasperating. The rest of the stories are nearly all delivered in dialogue forms. The narratives become redundant, so the appeal and the oomph are lost along the way. At one point, they deteriorate into a series of jokes with smart-alecky punch lines. Need I go on?

Perhaps the stories he will write in years to come will have more balance and depth. Perhaps I’m simply not the right audience (40-year-old mom) for Eisenberg’s style. So for now, I’ll just stick to watching Jesse Eisenberg on the big screen instead of cracking open his books.

*** Thank you to Grove Press for sending me a galley of this novel in exchange for an honest review.***

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A FAMILY SAGA’S CURSE: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

Book_Speculations_CoverThe Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler
St Martin’s Press, June 2015, 352 pages.

“The book is a beautifully broken window with an obstructed view of what is killing us, and something is definitely killing us.”

First-time novelist Erika Swyler attracts her reader with dark tales about an 18th-century travelling circus that parallels a tension-filled, modern-day narrative in The Book of Speculation. The altering story lines—one from the past and one from the present—are intricately bound together like the pages of the two-hundred-year-old book bestowed upon librarian Simon Watson. An elderly, unknown bookseller sends Simon a hand-written book since he thinks it may shed light on Simon’s family history.

Peabody’s Portable Magic and Miracles is  water-damaged and therefore only offers fractures answers to a family’s cursed past. In it, Simon recognizes familiar tales, historical patterns, and parallel lives. It also alerts him to his alienated sister’s impending death. To break the book’s spell, and to save his sister, Simon must first unravel the family saga of his people. A saga that started in Peabody’s menagerie—involving an ancient Russian seer, a mute wild boy, and an ethereal mermaid—over two centuries ago.

Swyler will pull in readers who value plot and twists over character development. This novel, which hits American and Canadian bookstores next week, has hints of The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield) and The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Alice Hoffman). Still, The Book of Speculation lacks the detailed, believable characterization that made me fall in love with those two books. Best save Swyler’s book for a lazy, rainy day when you want to escape into a fun story without being consumed by it.

*Thanks to the publisher for sending me a galley of this novel in exchange for an honest review.*

A VIP READING EXPERIENCE: Welcome to the Circus by Rhonda Douglas

Circus_Cover Welcome to the Circus by Rhonda Douglas Freehand Books May 2015, 196 pages 

Reading Rhonda Douglas’ collection of short stories Welcome to the Circus is a VIP experience at a series a of intimate performances: the live fantasy shows in the family-run Porn Emporium, the execution of a famous exotic dancer during WWI, and the confessional of anger-prone God. Sharp, dark humour livened up the dialogue. Lush, poetic phrases dotted the narrative. Always was I surprised by the strange and alluring stories crafted by Douglas.

The standouts? My favorite was “Cancer Oratio” whose different vignettes take the form of a musical composition while the characters come to terms with the fate of their dying friend. And, despite being distracted by several typos in the French text, I loved “Nous and René Levesque”, the story that landed Douglas on 2014 CBC Short Story Prize longlist. It’s a fresh take on different point of views concerning a possible “séparation” of Quebec in years gone by. Although every story is unique in topic and form, each has a lot of heart and memorable characters. I look forward to reading other original, weird, and fiercely smart stories from this author.

*I’d like to thank Freehand Books for sending me a copy of this book.*

SUMMER READING: A Trio of Tween Books for Boys and Girls

Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman (Henry Holt and Co., June 2015)

Ages 9+

BookScavenger_COVERWhen immersed in Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, the reader embarks on a fun, bookish adventure with 13-year-old Emily and her new buddy James. Shortly after moving to San Francisco, her idol Garrison Griswold gets shot moments before the launch of his new city-wide, book-hunting game. With the first hidden book in their possession and a duo of tugs on their tails, Emily and James must crack ciphers and go sleuthing across the city. Their aim: finding out what treasure awaits them at the end of the game. A treasure so important it put a man’s life in jeopardy.

I enjoyed watching Emily develop a friendship with James. Having been on the move from state to state since she was a little girl, making lasting friendships proved to be difficult for her. Watching them gain each other’s trust and working together to solve the mystery was the best part of the story.

Highlights:
A character named Steve pops up (or should I say sticks out) in many scenes. He’s a cowlick on top the of James’ head. That’s right. A cowlick. My middle-grade daughter laughed each time the author managed to incorporate Steve into the story.

What to watch out for:
This 368-page book is jam-packed with long sentences, in addition to detailed instructions and graphics of ciphers, making it a less-than-ideal choice for a “read aloud” experience.

Talk To Me by Sonia Ellis (FastPencil Wavecrest, December 2014)

Ages 9+

TalktoMe_COVERTalk to Me by Sonia Ellis puts 14-year-old Sadina in the spotlight while she struggles to help her family out of a pickle. Her mother is falsely accused of embezzlement, and her little sister Maddie is the only person who can clear her mother’s name. But Maddie has selective mutism, which means she has extreme anxiety of speaking to anyone outside her family. She is unable to tell authorities what really happened on the night an intruder entered their home. Everything depends on Sadina and her friends’ ability to help Maddie voice the truth before their mother goes to prison.

Kids will be able to relate to Sadine’s self-doubt and need to fit in. When she feels unsure about what will happen to her family, she thinks, “What I’m not so sure about is where this path is heading. I’ve never thought of this before, that something I do or say today might be like choosing a train at the station. It might be one that runs east instead of west, so that much later when it reaches its destination I might step off and suddenly realize it’s not at all where I wanted to be.” The tension Sadine feels throughout the story is palpable.

Highlights: This novel is not only available in print, but also for free online and as an audiobook at www.throughmywindow.org. There are also activities for kids and support material for teachers available on this site.

What to watch out for: I wasn’t 100% sold on this book’s success at promoting computer science and engineering to young girls. I feel like that technology-based scenes were awkwardly and unrealistically incorporated into the story.

Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin (Little Brown Readers, May 2015)

Ages 11+

Joe-All-Alone_COverWhen looking at the quirky cover image of Joanna Nadin’s latest novel Joe All Alone, readers may envision a comical story reminiscent of the movie Home Alone. That’s a false assumption since the harrowing story of 13-year-old Joe Holt is one of grim poverty, child neglect, and longing.

Joe’s alcoholic mother leaves him all alone, for several days, when she takes off with his mean stepfather for Spain. At first, Joe feels relief due to his newfound freedom, “as if there’s electricity instead of blood in [his] veins like a superhero.” But when food and money quickly run out, while he is laying low in his inner-city flat, his reality becomes bleak. Luckily, he meets his neighbour’s granddaughter, Asha, his “maybe-one-day girlfriend” whose goodness is “so bright [he] can’t see any of the crap that’s there or the stuff that should be but isn’t.” Having a friend on his side makes Joe feel alive, loved, and able to conquer the difficult measures he must take to survive.

Nadin gave a boy a believable, unforgettable voice. Joe is a lonely, vulnerable boy you will root for every step of the way. Although his story tugs at your heartstrings, it will also make the reader laugh and be hopeful until the very end.

Highlights: The author’s gorgeous lyrical expression and in-depth character development will make it impossible for you to stop turning the pages.

What to watch out for: Although this book is marketed for kids 9 years and older in the UK, I consider it more appropriate for kids 11 years of age and older. The author uses harsh language and sexual terms. The world she depicts is at times too cruel for younger readers.

*I’d like to thank the publishers who sent me galleys in exchange for honest reviews.*

FUNNY AND HEARTFELT: We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen

Molecules_CoverWe Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen May 12th 2015 by Tundra Books

Susin Nielsen strikes gold once again with her new YA novel We Are All Made of Molecules. Much like her previously published books, Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom (reviewed by bellsiebooks) and The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen (reviewed by Consumed by Ink), copies of this new book are sure to sell like hot cakes. Molecules will make the Best of 2015 lists everywhere. Mark. My. Words.

When we first meet 13-year-old Stewart, we realize right away that he is different and gifted. He has an endearing—though totally geeky—way of explaining how he and his father have been coping after the death of his mother. He explains that his family “had been like an equilateral triangle. Mom was the base that held up the whole structure. When we lost her, the other two sides just collapsed in on each other.” We learn that father and son have had a tough time since she died. Stewart views this period as the time his father “was Sad Dad twenty-four-seven, and [he] was Sad Stewart twenty-four-seven, and together [they] were Sad Squared, and it was just a big black hole of sadness.” After such a heartfelt, adorable declaration, it was impossible for me not to like and root for Stewart when I found out his life was about to change. He and his father move in with his new girlfriend, Caroline. The new girlfriend’s daughter—a fourteen-year-old, popular drama queen named Ashley—makes the move difficult from the start.

Stewart’s new stepsister isn’t happy about her new living arrangements. She’s still angry and ashamed about her parents’ divorce. On top of that, she’s paranoid that her friends and classmates “would love the fact that [her] so-called life was built on one gigantic lie.” That lie: her father came out of the closet. He’s gay, and that doesn’t sit well with Ashley. Nor does the idea of having a “midget-egghead-freakazoid” move into her home. Ashley is teenage angst personified. She is self-centered and hypercritical. She blows up at the tiniest annoyance or provocation. At school, she is obsessed with looking her best and maintaining her it-girl status. She’ll step on anyone’s toes to ensure that things go her way. So, when Stewart transfers to her school and shows up in Ashley’s English class wearing a smiley-face tie, I enjoyed reading about her squirm.

This story follows a familiar, predictable arc: two people with clashing personalities must eventually join forces to overcome the narrative’s main problem or obstacle. Still, Nielson has a fresh take on this much-used storyline. The author’s use of first person point-of-view brings Stewart and Ashley’s emotions to the forefront. Their voices are so different and believable. The author touches a lot of issues: bullying, homophobia, blended families, death, and mourning. She managed to do so without being preachy or talking down to her young, smart audience. I giggled and *nearly* cried along the way.

I think this is a touching, fun, and important book. It’s ideal for mature middle grade kids and young high school teens aged 12 to 15. Then again, I think any YA-loving teen or adults with enjoy this fast-paced book. With yet another great title under her belt, Susin Nielsen is quickly becoming the John Green of Canada.

Here are two other bloggers’ glowing reviews of the novel:

Darren at ShinraAlpha claims it’s a “book with some serious heart.”

Stephie at The Book Wars contends that “Nielsen is simply a great Canadian writer.”

*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*

15 EVOCATIVE YOUNG ADULT STORIES:Things I’ll Never Say edited by Ann Angel

ThinCover_AnnAngelgs I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves
Edited by Ann Angel
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published March 24th 2015 by Candlewick Press

In the 15 short stories featured in the new YA collection Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves edited by Ann Angel, the characters all struggle with a secret. Some of the secrets are a means of self-preservation while others are turning-points in dark fairy tales. Others, still, will forever change close relationships. Most of these stories had a tight hold on me. Three, in particular, will stay with me for a long time.

In the poignant story “The We-Are–Like-Everybody-Else Game” by Ellen Wittlinger, we feel the pressure rise in Lucy as she stands up to her controlling friend Claire. Claire who dictates what Lucy should say and do. Claire who knows the family secret that could shatter Lucy’s world. As the dynamics shifts and the tension builds, Lucy thinks, “I’ve never been able to stand up to Claire. She’s the only person who knows what goes on at my house, and she’s kept the secret for years.” That’s when we realize just how toxic their friendship is and brace ourselves for the wrath of a bully who wants to expose a hoarding nightmare.

An effective subway train metaphor runs throughout “For a Moment, Underground” by Kekla Magoon. The train is just like Sally’s secret. She’s a beautiful teenager struggling with an eating disorder. She thinks of the train as a “low, rumbling underground thing that once seemed invisible, but now that you’ve been away from it for a while, you realize how present it is.” Sally could just as easily be referring to the cause of her secret. The secret she relives when returning home, in the city, after being in boarding school for several months.

In my favorite story—“Three-Four Time” by Erica L. Kaufman—Imogene is a good student, girlfriend, and trumpet player who tries to hide her difficult home life. Her secret: a depressed, alcoholic mother. Imogene’s story crescendos in such a way to break your heart. Kaufman has an insightful way of grabbing your attention when Imogene talks about her mother: “I love her laugh. Sometimes I forget that there are things about my mother worth loving, that there are moments worth remembering. It’s because every good moment is really just a pause, a rest, a beat before the cacophony of the rest of her crashes in.”

These YA stories are fresh and thought-provoking.  So are the stories about a guy who gives herpes to his girlfriend, about a teen girl who makes advances to her teacher, and about a teenage father who gives up his baby for adoption. I relished nearly every one save for a couple fantasy stories that didn’t speak to me; they were lighter and didn’t capture the serious, heart-rending mood of the book.

I discovered new, inspiring YA authors. I urge teens and educators who enjoy raw, perceptive narratives featuring youths to get their hands on a copy of this book.

*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*

READING THE CLASSICS: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Dracula_!I’ve been interested in vampire stories since my favourite 80’s heartthrob Corey Haim (Cut me some slack… I was 13 years old.) starred in cult classic movie The Lost Boys. I then read a few Anne Rice novels in my late teens. And yes, I confess to reading the Twilight saga in recent years. Somehow, I had never gotten around to reading the classic novel that inspired the whole vampire craze: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Well, I’ve finally read it and wasn’t disappointed. Here is my February feature for Reading the Classics Challenge in 2015.

Five Highlights While Reading Bram Stocker’s Dracula:

5.  Unlike the “horror” scenes in other Gothic novels like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a couple of the scary bits in Dracula actually made the back of my neck prickle.

Dracula_34.  The eroticism in Stoker’s Dracula is much more overt and prevailing than I had imagined. The yearning of young, virtuous Lucy after her first encounter with a vampire, the passages laced with homoerotic longing, and the predatory advances of the women on imprisoned Jonathan Harker were a surprise. How the Victorian ladies must have fanned themselves silly to avoid swooning while reading Dracula! All this time, I thought that Anne Rice’s depiction of vampires Lestat and Louis was a twist on an old story. Boy was I mislead.

3.  I loved spotting the various myths and traits about vampires in the novel: having no shadow nor reflection, having porcelain-pale skin and sharp fangs, turning to dust after being killed, and transforming into bats… I wonder if readers in 1897 new about this folklore or if Dracula helped spread it?

Dracula_12.  This cheesy, but oh-so-good quote: ““There are darknesses in life and there are lights, and you are one of the lights, the light of all lights.” Professor and vampire expert Van Helsing says this to the clever, resourceful Mina during their plight to help Lucy. Sigh.

1.  Wrapping up my reading of Dracula gave me a good excuse to watch Francis Ford Coppola’s movie adaptation from the early 90’s. Ignore the craptastic performances of Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder. Enjoy the fabulous Gary Oldman as a formidable, sinister Dracula and (the razor-licking scene is beyond disgusting) and Tom Waits as a raving lunatic (such a welcome surprise).

 Join me again next month when I will discuss Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.