My Most Excellent Year

[Note to Ms. LaFontaine: I didn’t mean to give you a hard time about the title of this assignment, but “My Totally Excellent Year:  would have been like so 1995, we’d have been laughed out of Brookline if anybody found out.

Things will have to change drastically if this book doesn’t end in my top 3 of YA novels of 2013.  Yes, maybe all the characters were a little bit too successful, smart and self-assured for their age. But if you can manage the death of a parent, emigration, adoption and homosexuality without ever turning overly sentimental, preachy, cliché or really awkward, I happily ignore that. I giggled, I got teary, I squealed with joy.

The reader reads along with the three assignments of TC, Augie and Alejandra. TC tries to get his father back into dating, tries to get Alejandra to be his girlfriend, tries a lot of things. Augie lives by the gospel of Judy Garland and Nathalie Wood, and tries to realize what’s going on with his head and body whenever Andy is in some way involved. And Alejandra is an ambassador’s daughter, trying to discover how to break free from her parents’ plans for her without breaking their hearts. Add silly parents, a deaf six year old and a lot of musicals and you get a heart-warming mix.

I recommend this to anyone who needs a pick-me-up.

My Most Excellent Year – A novel of love, Mary Poppins & Fenway Park, Steve Kluger, Dial Books 2008

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Bitter Leaf

Many things distinguish a place, its rolling hills or turquoise waters.

Sometimes daily life can be a fairy tale. What I liked about Bitter Leaf how magic (was it even magic?) is effortlessly weaved into the story. No “Here Comes The Talking Guitar” but “the guitar whispered this and that”. This, combined with the bright colours of the village Mannobe and the people living there, almost gave me the feeling that the pages of the book were technicolour.

In a small village you can still have larger than life characters. Like Babylon, a Casanova with no roots. The twins M’elle and Mabel that seem to feed everyone in their little restaurant, the man they call Prophet or the gorgeous Jericho, a headstrong girl that left for the city, but returned for ..what exactly?

Each one of them has a problem involving love. Too much, too little, unsure where and with whom to find it. That’s the story in two sentences, it’s how they find it, which roads they walk until they find the right direction, that adds the flavour. In the meantime the reader becomes a passive village inhabitant, up to date on what boils underneath the surface.

Bitter Leaf is a village caught in paper.

Bitter Leaf, Chioma Okereke, Virago 2010

Mortal Engines

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried out bed of the old North Sea.

I loved this. I want the TV series, without even having read the following book. This is how awesome (YA) fantasy can be.

Mortal Engines shows the reader a world a couple of hundred years into the future. A lot of the world has been run over by water and the remaining parts are pretty much lifeless. Cities have to hunt down towns and villages for sustainment: wood, iron and so on are fuel for the ovens that make the city move (because not moving is a risk, even if you’re the biggest around), inhabitants are ‘adopted’ and put to work.

Tom is just a lowly assistant, but he hopes to one day become someone, to contribute to the city of London. Just like his hero, Thaddeus Valentine. When Valentine turns out to have some bad sides and Tom is dropped into the wasteland of the earth’s surface, the heroic part of the unlikely hero story starts.

Tom discovers that the city authority has been keeping information from its people, that not all activists are terrorists and sometimes there is just no easy way out. Philip Reeve manages to build a fascinating yet terrifying world, add some Messages without being preachy and top it off with loads of fun.

Mortal Engines – The Hungry City Chronicles, Philip Reeve, HarperCollins 2001

Rise of the Guardians

97 min.

Toen Rise of the Guardians nog draaide, hoorde ik al veel positieve recensies. Natuurlijk waren er de twijfelachtige (“de hoofdpersoon is zo knap!”) maar ook genoeg waardoor ik enthousiast werd. Dan gaat tijd voorbij en realiseer je dat je weer een film in de bioscoop gemist hebt. Gelukkig zijn er andere manieren om een film te kijken.

Dreamworks
Dreamworks

Met een verhaal waarin de Paashaas, de Kerstman, Klaasvaak en de Tandjesfee (dit voelt vreemd, ik bedoel gewoon de Tooth Fairy natuurlijk) superhelden zijn, is het makkelijk te bedenken dat deze film alleen voor de kleinsten is. Animatie wordt tenslotte al snel als synoniem voor kinderfilm gezien (in Westerse culturen). Maak die fout nu maar niet, want Rise of the Guardians is vreselijk stoer. En lief en spannend, zo af en toe.

Hoofdpersoon is Jack Frost, de jongen die voor sneeuw en kou zorgt. Hij doet dit alleen, veel mensen weten niet van zijn bestaan af waardoor hij onzichtbaar is en zelf weet hij ook weinig van zijn eigen geschiedenis af.
Omdat bad guy Pitch Black weer actief is (hij wil dat iedereen bang is, altijd), vragen de Guardians Jack er bij. De onwaarschijnlijke held is gevonden.

Natuurlijk zijn er duidelijke boodschappen over jezelf vinden en dat niet altijd degene die het sterkst lijkt ook het sterkst is, maar deze worden bijna ondergesneeuwd (ha!) door het flinke tempo, grappen en actie.

Rise of the Guardians, Dreamworks 2012

Hotel Honolulu

Nothing to me is so erotic as a hotel room, and therefore so penetrated with life and death.

Ik wilde al langer een boek van Theroux lezen omdat hij ‘de vader van’ is en omdat ik nog nooit een negatieve recensie over zijn werk heb gelezen (dit kan natuurlijk ook zijn  omdat ik te weinig recensies lees). In de bibliotheek was zijn aanbod in fictie makkelijker bereikbaar dan zijn non-fictie, liet ik mijn ogen de keuze maken (een leuke, kleurrijke cover) en ging ik voor Hotel Honulu.

De hoofdpersoon is een man van middelbare leeftijd, een schrijver, die zowel zijn gezin als zijn schrijven in Engeland achter heeft gelaten en nu hotelmanager is in Hawaii. Vooral in naam, want de eigenaar is zéér aanwezig en zijn personeel is beter op de hoogte van wat er aan de hand is dan hij. Hij bezwangerd een jongere vrouw omdat hij té opgewonden raakt door het geluid van seks in de kamer boven hem. Pas veel later blijkt dat het geen seks was, maar een hotelgast die zijn eigen doodskist aan het bouwen was.

Hotel Honulu is grotendeels een collectie van vreemde gasten, met op de achtergrond de hotelmanager, die vaker de toeschouwer dan de actieve participant is. Soms twijfelt hij, maar het is duidelijk dat hij het wel mooi vindt, dit rond dobberen.

Dit navelstaren is altijd een risico en kan snel vervelend worden, maar omdat het zo vaak wordt afgewisseld met exotische gasten en vreemde situaties, zal het niet veel meer dan “Wat een stumperd” oproepen.

Hotel Honolulu, Paul Theroux, Houghton Mifflin Company 2001

The Frozen Rabbi

Sometime during his restless fifteenth year, Bernie Karp discovered in his parents’ food freezer – a white-enameled Kelvinator humming in its corner of the basement rumpus room – an old man frozen in a block of ice.

The heirloom of a Jewish family is a Rabbi frozen in a large piece of ice. When he defrosts and wakes, things start to get confusing. The main story is about a small family that doesn’t live with each other, but next to each other. The son discovers the Rabbi and his actions bring him back to life (which makes him feel like he has the biggest claim on the man), but his mother and father are affected by the situation as well.
When we’re not with the contemporary family, we dive into the history of the Rabbi and the families he stayed with before.

For a long time I really liked this book. It was quirky, created some amazing world building and educated me about a lot of Jewish things. Until suddenly a switch was flipped and pretty much every character turned into a show case for greed, neglect and depression. Things swirl down the drain and with an absolute absurd and disgusting ending you’re booted from the story; take from it what you want.

If I’d be a book vandal, I’d cut out the second half and recommend the book after.

The Frozen Rabbi, Steve Stern, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2010

Pure

Call me a Believer with a Blackberry, the Mohammedan with the Mac.

This started out as something adventurous and full potential and left me with a bitter need to finish it as soon as possible. One of the biggest reasons were the chapters by some agent (FBI, MI6, all unclear) and his endless name dropping of the education he had and the people he knew. When I realized every one of his chapters was the same, I started skipping pages. I only feel slightly bad about this.

The protagonist is Snooky, a self-described lady-boy. Her life consists out of drugs, drinking, partying and hanging with her friends/enemies. After a case of ‘Wrong place, wrong time’ she is told that he – born Mohammed – needs to go undercover in a terrorist organization. Snooky is terrified and nervous, Mohammed slowly takes over again, especially after he’s been fed hormones because he “can’t grow a proper beard”.

When not being interrupted by Secret Agent Show Off, Pure turns into a story about the life of a fundamentalist. Mohammed’s superiors have a Koran text for every excuse or trouble, the students need to learn about how to become a martyr, why the Caliphate is the only way, they ‘test’ bombs and courages and it all rolls up in one ball of misery.

It’s very clear that Mohammed/Snooky is very confused, more ill by the moment and very tired. Next to that there’s double crossing, triple crossing, confusion about who’s the double agent and so on. After 200 or so pages the story started to drag more and more, like Timothy Mo was unsure about where to end this.
Pure could have been enough if it would have stuck with Snooky’s life.

Pure, Timothy Mo, Turnaround Books 2012