The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater

BooksThe 57 Bus is a “ripped from the headlines,” true story of one teenager lighting another’s clothes on fire on a public bus in Oakland. Author and journalist Dashka Slater goes beyond the headlines to present the story and characters in great detail and nuance.

Sasha is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and does not identify as male or female, instead using the pronoun “they.” Sasha has supportive parents and goes to a school where they have many friends, but on the public bus ride across Oakland from school back home Sasha’s skirt is lit on fire by Richard. How will this affect Sasha, their family, friends, and community?

Richard’s actions were unquestionably intentional. Sasha spent weeks in the hospital having painful surgeries in an to attempt to repair the burns. Should sixteen-year-old Richard be charged with a hate crime in addition to the obvious charges he faces? Should he be tried as an adult or a juvenile? What are the potential ramifications of these decisions?

I am not good at remembering the specifics of books and movies, nor do I remember the lyrics to many songs. (You really don’t want me on your trivia team.) I like most of the books I read, but ask me to recall the plot and characters a few months later, and we’ll be lucky if I can extract much information.

It’s too early to tell since I only recently read The 57 Bus, but I think my recall of it will be different. The characters and plot are memorable. The journalistic treatment of the story—seeing the perspectives of friends and family of both teens, in addition to getting a glimpse into the workings of the juvenile justice system, made this book a well-rounded and thought-provoking read.

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

Book – Helen Russell is a magazine journalist, living in London with her husband. Their days are filled with commuting and long hours at work. Their evenings are packed with social engagements and alcohol. They have been trying unsuccessfully to conceive for a couple of years. Helen dreams of retirement at the age of 33. Then, Helen’s husband gets an unexpected offer to work for Lego in Jutland.

Helen begins to research the country of five and a half million people, and discovers that they pay high taxes, get free healthcare, free education and subsidized daycare. Danes average a 34 hour workweek. And, according to the UN World Happiness Report, Denmark is the happiest country on earth. Helen and her husband decide to move to Denmark and this book documents their first year of living in their adopted country.

Helen’s chatty writing style and witty observations entertained me. She shares her experiences with food, relationships, religious traditions and the many unwritten “rules” she encounters. The Year of Living Danishly was an enjoyable exploration of a different culture and a lifestyle change. If you like this book, you may also want to read Happy as a Dane or the Little Book of Hygge.

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson

Books–When Ms. Bixby’s cancer progresses faster than anticipated and she has to leave school before her Going Away party, three of her sixth-grade students—Topher, Brand, and Steve—hatch a plan to skip school, go to her hospital, and provide her with her Perfect Day. They face a steady stream of entertaining obstacles during their quest, but the true depth of Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson is in the flashbacks that fill in how the boys became such good friends and why they each individually bonded so strongly with Ms. Bixby.

Chapters are told from the characters’ varying viewpoints. Topher is overly imaginative, Steve is extremely book smart, and Brand is the one with common sense. It’s fun to see how the boys get out of each of the sticky situations they get into during their day—What will they do when they bump into a teacher? How will they stretch their money far enough to buy all the things they want for Ms. Bixby’s Perfect Day? Who will be brave enough to use a toilet painted like a shark?

I listened to this book on Hoopla, and I highly recommend it either in audio or book format. It’s a great “boy book” for upper elementary students, but this grown up girl really enjoyed it too. Its themes of friendship, kindness, appreciation, and grief and really for everyone.
Other Juvenile Fiction books by John David Anderson include Posted, Insert Coin to Continue, The Dungeoneers, Minion, and Sidekicked.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life: Essays by Samantha Irby

Book – It’s pretty much a guarantee; if you put a kitten on a book’s cover I’m at least going to pick it up for a closer look. And although Samantha Irby’s cat (Helen Keller, the world’s angriest rescue) is largely a secondary character in We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, I was definitely not disappointed.

Irby’s writing is in turn hilarious, sexually explicit, vulgar, moving, emotional, and definitely not for the faint of heart. Irby, who also blogs under the title ‘bitches gotta eat’ explores both the anecdotal and the deeply personal, always with refreshing candor and wit. Essays in her second book cover everything from her Bachelorette application (she’s 35 but could pass for 60 if she stays up all night) to growing up with an alcoholic parent (who once punched her in the face for doing the dishes wrong). It’s also wryly—and sometimes laugh out loud—funny and feels more like conversing with a dear friend than reading a stranger’s inner thoughts.

Irby grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, so local readers will find much of her experiences familiar and relatable. Her essays are loosely interconnected, making this an easy book to pick up and put down at your leisure. Anyone looking for a funny and emotional memoir that is nevertheless easy to read should look no further.

Version Control by Dexter Palmer

Book–Set in the near future, Palmer’s novel follows Rebecca Wright, a thirty-something recovering alcoholic, and her physicist husband Philip. Philip has been working fruitlessly for many years on a causal volatility device (in layman’s terms, a time machine), and as far as he knows, has not been having much luck. Meanwhile, Rebecca has been having a nagging sense that something is not right; the president is not the right person, her friends’ personalities aren’t quite right, her life isn’t what it should be. Palmer has an interesting take on time travel that, without spoiling anything, powers much of the narrative. For me, the attraction of this book was the depiction of the near-future society, where the president delivers personalized messages to each citizen and cars drive themselves.

While the main character is not, in my opinion, likeable, she is very real and flawed. Palmer’s views on race, gender, marriage, and technology are very much on display here and, regardless of whether you agree with them, they are certainly interesting to read about and only occasionally preachy. Version Control is a perfect sci-fi and literary fiction blend sure to appeal to fans of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.

Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent

Book–Oliver Ryan, famous children’s book writer, and his loyal wife Alice, who illustrates his books, have a seemingly happy life until one night, after a very good dinner, he hits her, leaves, then comes back to beat her into a coma. The rest of the book is like peeling the layers of an onion. Nugent jumps around in chronology and in viewpoint, each character giving their take on Oliver, their past with him, and why he did it. From his harsh upbringing in a Catholic boarding school, to a fateful summer in France, to his current success, the reader gets more insight into Oliver’s character and motivations with every chapter. By the end, the reader should understand why he did it. Whether you find him sympathetic or a monster is up to you.

Like many books with this structure, it can get a little repetitive. We read tellings of the same scene from so many viewpoints that the details can wear thin by the second character’s take. Also, the story is full of too-convenient coincidences that stretch belief. Nevertheless, I read it in one sitting and found myself sucked in to Unraveling Oliver the way the best domestic thrillers suck you in. While I still found him absolutely monstrous at the end, I could see a different reader coming around to find him at least pitiable, if not sympathetic. This should appeal to people who like the recent spate of compelling Girl novels (Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, etc). If you’re looking for your next read, try B. A. Paris’ Behind Closed Doors, or, in fact, any of B. A. Paris‘ domestic thriller novels.

Durrells in Corfu (2016)

Movies & TV – What a great time to escape winter dreariness and cold with the Durrells in Corfu. Set in 1935 on this picturesque Greek island, recently widowed Louisa moves here with her children hoping to escape their financial hardships in England. All is not as idyllic as they hoped, as their affordable rental house has no plumbing or electricity. Fortunately, their taxi driver Spiros immediately takes a liking to the eccentric family and becomes their protector and navigator through the customs and idiosyncrasies of the locals.

The Durrell family is made up of unique characters. The children from youngest to oldest – Gerry 11 is in his element at his new home with all the wildlife nearby. Never agreeable to traditional education, he goes through a stream of tutors while setting up a zoo and teaching himself about conservation efforts. Margo 16 is totally boy crazy and attempts working at different jobs and even contemplates becoming a nun. Leslie 18 is very impulsive and obsessed with guns.  He shoots and skins rabbits and fancies himself as somewhat of a survivalist. Larry 23, really an adult, wants to become a famous novelist and moves with the family hoping that his new surroundings will inspire his writing. Louisa has many challenges ahead of her trying to make a better life for her unconventional brood, but tries to be optimistic and even sees herself as still being young enough to hopefully find love again.

Another delightful Masterpiece production, this is a heartwarming show about family love and acceptance.  It is based on the true stories of Gerald (Gerry) Durrell.

The Deepest Secret by Carla Buckley

Book – How far would you go to protect a family member?  “The Deepest Secret” explores that loyalty on various levels.  Tyler would like nothing more than just be a normal teenager, but unfortunately he suffers from Xeroderma pigmentosa (XP).  This is a rare condition that makes sunlight and artificial UV light fatal.  He can only leave his house at night and only go to those areas where neighbors have complied with requests to use special light bulbs.  His mom, Eve, is understandably over-protective to the point that her concerns annoy some neighbors and Tyler’s teachers. By being confined indoors during the day, Tyler wants to observe how normal people live. So under cover of darkness he spies on his neighbors through their windows and takes photos of them.  Tyler’s sister, who is slightly older than him is rebellious and feels neglected and his Dad only comes home for the weekends commuting from a job to help cover all the medical expenses.

When the 11 year olf daughter of Eve’s best friend in the neighborhood disappears and is found dead, distrust flows freely among the neighbors.  It seems that the resident families have many secrets and aren’t above false accusations and cover ups.

This is a psychological thriller high in family drama. The story would make a great choice for a book club.  This would appeal to fans of Jodi Picoult, Lisa Scottoline, and the book Defending Jacob.

Funny Games (2008)

MovieFunny Games is, without a doubt the most infuriating film I have ever watched.  I should mention first that horror and thriller films are definitely not my genre of choice, but I can still appreciate what goes into the suspense and jump scares that give me the jitters.  After seeing Funny Games just one time, I adamantly refuse to ever watch it again.  However, I do acknowledge that what enrages me could be someone else’s favorite movie of all time.  To each their own.

It starts as horror stories often do: a family goes on holiday, anticipating a nice, quiet vacation.  Then two strangers show up (stranger danger!), and the trip quickly becomes their worst nightmare.  The two men first arrive at the house of the family requesting to borrow some eggs, but the offenders return with more sinister demands.  The men create a game of torture and violence against the family, who must struggle to stay alive.

Funny Games is brutal, and the way the offenders break the fourth wall and stare down the audience through the screen really makes my skin crawl.  I hate tension in movies, and the tension in this movie is excruciating for me to sit through without wanting to scream.  Maybe this film is worth watching for the horror or thriller enthusiast.

The Boss Baby (2017)

Movie – DreamWorks is at it again with The Boss Baby. Alec Baldwin is voice of Boss Baby – an Armani suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying infant, who is out to learn why most of the world’s love is going to puppies and not babies. Tim, the older 8-year-old brother is absolutely not impressed with the new baby. He has a feeling something is up with this baby and tries desperately to get his parents to see that something is wrong. After a comical battle, the two decide to join forces and get the answers that Boss Baby needs, so he can leave.

I think that this movie is more for adults than elementary school age kids. Only adults would understand the nostalgic points and older jokes. I do feel that children will appreciate this movie, but not to the extent that I did.  If Alec Baldwin’s humor is not your taste, move on. If so, definitely check this out.