If Only by A. J. Pine
Although romance isn’t exactly my default reading genre, a guy needs to stretch, right? If they’re all as good as A. J. Pine’s If Only, I might dabble in this again. Everything I want in a story is here: likeable characters, humor, a dash of the exotic, and a narration that drives through to a satisfying conclusion.
College student Jordan Brooks, the protagonist of If Only, is beginning a year of study in Scotland. On the train ride to her Aberdeen campus, she makes out with two different guys—one is a bad boy, and the other has a girlfriend. And we’re off!
The dialogue is witty, flirtatious, and funny, but these characters are smart too. The Great Gatsby, A Room with a View, and Much Ado about Nothing all play important roles in the plot, although a reader not familiar with those titles will have no trouble understanding what is going on.
Travel narratives have two appealing conventions: descriptions of a locale’s most interesting features, and the knowledge that our traveler must eventually go home. If Only capitalizes on both of those ideas, providing a charming, vicarious vacation for readers.
Disclaimer: I was surprised to find myself in the acknowledgements, but I’m proud to be there. A. J. Pine is my friend and former colleague. Friendship is a theme that runs through If Only, reminding us what it’s like to be in an interesting circle of friends.
Knockout Games by G. Neri
G. Neri, author of the Coretta Scott King Award-winning Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, takes us inside a St. Louis knockout club, a group of middle school and high school kids dedicated to pursuing random violence and capturing it on video. Narrated by the newest member of the club, Erica (nicknamed Fish), a skilled video artist, Knockout Games is as brutal and edgy as it is authentic and important.
Neri doesn’t provide easy answers for why attacking unsuspecting strangers is a gratifying experience for some young people, but readers gain insights into a street culture rarely glimpsed beyond those shocking videos.
Andre the Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown
Because professional wrestling is pop story-telling filled with melodrama and cartoon-ish characters, a graphic novel is the perfect marriage of format and content for Box Brown’s Andre the Giant: Life and Legend. Arguably the best known professional wrestler of all time, Andre the Giant weighed 600 pounds and stood well over seven feet tall. He was world-famous in the wrestling ring, and eventually appeared in movies and on talk shows. Cartoonist Box Brown portrays Andre as a human excessive in his vices but also kind and gentle at times, as well as a sympathetic figure whose size was due to a disease (acromegaly) that made people stare at him in fear from an early age, caused him daily physical pain, and led to an early death.
Andre the Giant: Life and Legend includes a few eff-bombs and sexual situations that may make it questionable for some younger readers, but this is perfect for those who want to read something like Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer.
Deep Shadow by Randy Wayne White
Deep Shadow, the seventeenth Doc Ford novel by Randy Wayne White, is one of the best in the series. I’m not sure what makes this such an excellent thriller–the bumbling mass murderers, the giant reptiles, or the healthy helping of Florida lore. The book’s entire action takes place within a few hours and much of it occurs underwater. Alternating points of view between Ford, Tomlinson, and the bad guys, make this a real page-turner. I recommend reading the Doc Ford books in order, and this one is definitely worth the wait.
Night Vision by Randy Wayne White
Set against a backdrop of human trafficking and illegal steroid manufacturing, Night Vision, the eighteenth Doc Ford novel by Randy Wayne White, is captivating but not one of the best in the series. The elements which make this series so enjoyable for me are still here but they are almost in the background. Tomlinson, Doc Ford’s hippie best friend, appears briefly at the beginning and end of the story. Doc Ford himself is off stage for what seems like more than half the book, as we are brought up close to the bad guys for long stretches with the understanding that Doc Ford is on the way to the rescue. If you’re a fellow fan of the Doc Ford series, don’t skip this one, but it’s also not one of the better installments in the series. The alligator attack at the beginning of Night Vision is my favorite part.
Sisters by Raina Telegemeier
Although it kept my attention, I couldn’t quite get a handle on Sisters. Raina Telgemeier’s two previous graphic novels–Smile and Drama–were satisfying stories, but this one seemed to be in search of what it was really about. Tied together by a family car trip, other episodes are juxtaposed to show how the sisters relate differently to what is going on around them. Young readers may connect with the various episodes involving cousins, pets, and the need to keep electronics fully charged, but I thought Sisters skimmed along too lightly on big issues involving family. To be completely honest, it’s possible that my enjoyment was affected by the fact that the graphic novel e-galley I received was mostly in black-and-white, although the publisher included a note saying that the final version “will be in full color throughout.” So, it was kind of like reading a novel with most of the adjectives removed. I hope to read the full color version after publication.
Congratulations, by the way by George Saunders
Writing a review for Congratulations, by the way—the newest title from George Saunders—feels a little bit like writing a review for an expensive greeting card. But it’s presented to us as a book, so I’ll try to regard it as a book. Actually, it’s a Syracuse University graduation speech, with a good and important message: Be kind.
That deceptively simple message is presented with humor and pathos, and in this edition it is illuminated by a series of abstract drawings that effectively enhances the idea that kindness is a choice we make not only for the good of others but for the benefit of “that luminous part of you that exists beyond personality—your soul, if you will.” Saunders gives us an intellectual defense of why kindness matters, as well as some practical advice on how to get started on being kinder. George Saunders will probably eventually publish a follow-up to The Braindead Megaphone, his excellent collection of nonfiction pieces, and this text would have fit nicely there, but as a stand-alone book, Congratulations, by the way will likely and deservedly reach more people.
I’ve read this brief book three times. Since then, I’ve had a few failures of kindness. In a couple of cases, George Saunders has popped into my mind, and I’ve gone forward with a renewed commitment to kindness. Most graduation speeches flicker out by the time that caps and tassels hit the ground, but this one is sticking with me.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I see why The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize this year. The story begins with a child, Theo Decker, involved in a compelling tragedy, and then his life is twisted by the fascinating cast of supporting characters. At the heart of it all is a small painting exerting its artistic energy on Theo, leading readers to consider and reconsider the works of art that matter to us.