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A and B C the Coast

I’ve actually been rocking and rolling through books this summer, and this one’s a good one. I actually sat at the Hubbard Avenue Diner for over two hours finishing it, and was nearly in tears by the end. It was a random pluck from the shelves at the bookstore, Allie and Bea by Catherine Ryan Hyde.

Allie and Bea: A Novel by [Hyde, Catherine Ryan]

Cover photo (Amazon.com)

I expected it to be a sweet and sappy story, a la Jennifer Weiner or Jodi Picoult. It was, and yet it wasn’t. Before reading Allie and Bea I was not familiar with Catherine Ryan Hyde but I’ve already gotten another of her books out from the library.

This book is a Thelma and Louise story for the twenty-first century. It starts when Bea, an elderly widow from Southern California who is out of luck and out of money after falling victim to a scammer. She packs her cat and a few possessions in her van, and drives away from her old life with no real destination. Meanwhile, not far away, fifteen-year-old Allie’s luxurious life collapses when her parents are arrested for tax fraud and she is sent to a group home. With the help of a friend who turns out to be not such a good friend, Allie escapes the group home and winds up on the side of the road. In desperation, she throws herself in front of Bea’s van in the middle of the night, hoping to attract her attention. Bea agrees to let her spend the night with her in the van, but after hearing Allie’s story and getting to know her, ends up letting her stay, as her unlikely travel companion. Together, they travel north through California, Oregon, and Washington, learning more about each other, themselves, and what has been missing from their lives. Their past (well, Allie’s at least) catches up with them in the end, but it turns out neither predictably nor completely absurdly.

This book kept me captivated right from the start. Hyde does a great job describing places and situations, and her characters are special; not perfect, in fact quite flawed, but they’re the kinds of characters you sort of dislike in the beginning but turn out to root for in the end, and not in a forced way. Bea seemed like a grouch in the beginning, and Allie seemed to bee too perfect, but as the book went on, their characters developed in a way that made them more alike than different. Their adventures on the road were fun and unpredictable, and in a way, it was a journey of healing, the further they got from Los Angeles and the more people they got to know and places they got to experience, from the twisty roads of the Oregon coast to the rocky shores of Washington state.

The ending was probably the best part. I won’t tell you what happens, but I’ll tell you what doesn’t happen. One predictable ending: Bea and Allie betray each other and part ways, never to see each other again. Second, even more predictable ending: Bea becomes so endeared with Allie that when the feds catch up to them, she adopts her and they legally become a family. Neither of these things happen, which is really refreshing. The ending is a mix of sad and happy, but overall provides a satisfying close to their adventure.

Oh, and third predictable ending: Bea and Allie don’t die in a fiery car crash or soar into the Grand Canyon.

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Monkey Puzzle

Not only did I finish one book since I finished revising my prelims, but I finished a second! Incroyable, as the French might say. So here’s my review, without further ado, of What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn. This wasn’t on any list I had, it was just a completely random pluck from the shelf in Memorial Library and I’m glad I plucked it because it was pretty plucking fantastic.

What Was Lost, the debut novel by Catherine O’Flynn, is a mystery straddling the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, developing exciting storylines while commenting on urban blight (it is not, though, urban fantasy). We start in 1984, through the eyes of 10-year-old Kate Meaney, an aspiring detective, as she roams around Birmingham with her partner Mickey (a stuffed monkey) looking for crimes and adventure. She has a friend in 22-year-old Adrian, a local shop worker, and the people around her find it quite strange. One day, Adrian sees Kate off on a bus to take an entrance exam at a boarding school…and Kate is never seen again. After being hounded by the press, Adrian disappears as well.

Fast forward to 2004. Kurt, a security guard at the dying Green Oaks Mall, is manning the cameras one night when he sees the image of a little girl on the screen, holding a backpack, notebook, and toy monkey. He never finds the little girl again, but he does encounter Lisa, who works at one of the stores in the mall, who randomly found the stuffed monkey toy in a crevice in the wall. The two become friends, and after Kurt shares his mysterious sighting on the camera, Lisa shares that her brother, Adrian, disappeared twenty years ago, after the disappearance of Kate, who a) owned a toy monkey, b) regularly hung out at what is now Green Oaks, and c) may have been there on the day of her disappearance. Obviously, the girl Kurt saw on the camera wasn’t Kate, but it does bring some attention back to her disappearance, leading to more clues, unexpected arrivals, and ultimately, the fate of Kate.

O’Flynn’s writing style is very natural and flows well, it’s a page-turner both in form and content. Unlike the book I reviewed two posts ago (The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters by Timothy Schaffert), this was a book where I could skim here and there without missing anything major. Although I was much more interested in the Kate story line than the Kurt/Lisa story line, seeing these two disillusioned, unhappy retail workers find the answers to a long-forgotten urban mystery, little by little, made me want to keep reading. It’s also a rather slim volume, at around 150 pages; an easy read on a bus, train, or plane ride.

Some of the things that I found off about the book were the random asides, and Kurt’s involvement in the whole thing. Kurt is the first character we meet in the 2004 section of the book, and he really has no connection to Kate whatsoever, but randomly happens to see a girl (or so he thinks) who matches Kate’s description, even though it’s obviously not Kate, because she would be 30 years old by then. After meeting Lisa, who has an actual connection to Kate and Adrian, it just seems like a strange coincidence that he’d report seeing someone who looked like Kate despite a) never having met her before, b) not knowing what she looked like, or that she owned a notebook and a monkey toy, and c) never even knowing of her existence before Lisa entered the picture. Then, there are random asides in italics at certain points, by “Mystery Shopper” or “Shop Customer” that don’t seem to add a lot to the plot, other than giving some more establishing imagery/context, but ultimately, they don’t have names and there’s no real consistency to them.

I think that the book had some decent messages, especially considering the title, What Was Lost. Obviously, Kate and Adrian are physically missing, but in a way, it also describes the bleak existences of Kurt and Lisa who are trapped in retail hell at a dying mall, and the other characters too, including the ones who have no names but comment on the goings-on of the mall. On the whole, it’s an homage to turn-of-the-century urban ennui, adding a little bit of mystery through a quirky 10-year-old wannabe detective. I’m really glad I picked it up and I’ve already gone back to get another of O’Flynn’s books.

This book review was brought to you by my cold being over, but the rest of me not quite ready to return to normal life yet.

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Book Review: Scarlett Thomas, PopCo

I finished the first book out of the 20 or so I brought home with me. It took me a few weeks, to finish it, but not because I was bored with it, mostly because of end-of-semester stress. Ladies and gentlemen, PopCoby Scarlett Thomas.

Cover of "PopCo"

I found it on the shelf at Memorial Library; it had a fascinating front cover with an eye and lips, and an equally more interesting back cover. After a few minutes of debating whether to get it and face the reality that it’d be returned unread, or not getting it and then when I went back to look for it, find it gone, so I just got it and put it under everything I had to read for the semester…well, not really, more like…alongside it, getting in a chapter or two here and there. This is the kind of book that’s hard to put down, but once you pick it back up again, it’s easy to get back into.

To summarize: Alice Butler is a twenty-something crossword puzzle constructor turned toy creator for a gargantuan toy company called PopCo. She is invited to the annual company retreat in a place called Battersea. There, in this weird company compound where there may or may not be children testing toys, she is assigned to a team of other eclectic and mysterious PopCo employees to make the “perfect product for the teenage-girl market.” Much like her predecessor in Wonderland, Alice goes on a strange journey full of encrypted messages left at her door, wacky workshops where she has to play a paddle ball game, solve riddles, and sail a boat. It is also a journey into her childhood, as she searches for the solution for the mysterious code inside a locket given to her by her grandfather, reliving it alongside searching for the answers to the questions PopCo brings up – both of which yield unexpected results. It’s like a hybrid of Alice in Wonderland and 1984.

It’s got all the ingredients for a good story, but I think it’s about 75% there. I loved the character of Alice; she seemed like a great combination of nerdy and spunky. Socially awkward, yet sexually desirable. Some of her friends, particularly Esther, got on my nerves for the sheer lack of information Thomas provides us with. I feel like it has a strong start and keeps going for awhile but loses steam toward the end. The last few chapters were fascinating, but still somewhat of a let-down. We never find out if Alice left PopCo or not; if the treasure was found, and by whom; if anyone from PopCo came up with the desired product; how Chloe’s sabotage worked out; if Alice and Ben ended up together; and what the hell happened to Alice’s father. I don’t know if the author planned on writing a sequel, but since it’s been a decade since she wrote it, it’s unlikely that there will be a PopCo 2.

I would definitely recommend this book; it’s full of fun and tidbits about cryptography and an inside look at major toy corporations and branding schemes. I loved the crazy book-page code, and the complicated one with the massive grid.

One thing I noticed that may or may not have been intentional; the names of the PopCo employee characters all line up in alphabetical order and alternated by gender and importance of their role in the story. Take a look:

Alice (protagonist)

Ben (her love interest)

Chloe (Ben’s “fawn-haired” friend who isn’t who she seems)

Dan (Alice’s friend, a programmer)

Esther (a mysterious and duplicitous internet marketer)

Frank (not a major character; described as a “large black man with tattoos”)

Grace (female Asian employee who beats Hiro at Go)

Hiro (male Asian employee and reigning Go champion who has a thing for Grace)

There are no I or J-named people, but there is Kieran (who is male but should be a girl, by the rule of being an odd letter of the alphabet) and two Icelandic employees, Mitzi and Niila (who fit, as Mitzi is female and Niila is male). There is also a Violet, however, nobody with names between O-U.

This one was tough to let go, knowing that I had so many unanswered questions. All the same, it intrigued me so much that I got two more of her books from the library, brought them home with me to read, and will probably end up moving their way to the top of my reading list.

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On Judging A Book By Its Cover

In an unexpected turn of events, this post is exactly how the title sounds.

This afternoon, I spent an hour that I should have been working on my paper browsing Half-Price Books. If you haven’t experienced the glory of Half-Price Books, or live in a city/country where there is none, find the nearest one and go now. Or, when it opens, since it’s almost midnight here in Wisconsin.

Half Price Books (Lego Version)

Half Price Books (Lego Version) (Photo credit: Diorama Sky)

With ebooks, eBay, and Amazon.com, the bookstore suffered a pretty terrible death. All the little ones died first, then Waldenbooks, Gordon’s, pretty much paring them down to Barnes & Noble and the occasional Borders. But somehow, Half-Price Books emerged like a phoenix from the proverbial pile of ash.

When you go into one of their stores, you never know what you’re going to find. It might be a long-lost childhood favorite, a completely obscure title, or even a box of Edward Gorey note cards. And everything’s – you guessed it – half price. And some things are even less.

So today when I went to Half-Price Books, I looked at covers.

Yes, covers.

An old adage says, “never judge a book by its cover.” Well, they’re wrong.

::gasp::

It’s true. The art of the book cover says something about the book. I’ll start with the types of books I usually buy. For fiction and literature, bright colored covers usually mean chick-lit, or something else light and fuzzy. I can go for these types of books, except when I buy them without reading much about it from the back cover and it turns out to be a Christian Young Adult novel. (This has happened.) For a play, usually the cover will be your standard Samuel French or Dramatists pastel. I always wondered about how those colors got picked for each title. That would be the most fun job ever. Biographies and memoirs usually have the author (or whoever’s being ghostwritten about) on the cover, a move that is vain, but then again, he or she is kind of what the book’s about. Still, there are some wonderful biographies/memoirs with pictures on the cover that do not contain the visage of the subject. Mysteries come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors, but usually if it’s got blood or guns on the cover, it’s not as thrilling as the author would like to you think it is. My favorite mysteries are of the “cozy” genre, not too graphic or violent but fun to follow (and figure out, if you’re that type of reader). For example, Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series is named after plants, the corresponding one of which is featured on the cover, and Laura Childs’ Tea Shop mysteries are done up in a tasteful still-life with a matching color palate throughout. You know you’ve got a hit series when any of your books can be spotted from a mile away. Yes, I’m talking to you, Sue Grafton. Fantasy and sci-fi novels have incredibly detailed covers, emblematic of how intense you have to focus in order to follow them. Travel guides often feature a photo of something that is either too abstract to recognize without a caption, or a picture of something you will most likely never witness if you travel to that place, like the sunrise over Mt. Fuji in Japan, the wild elephants of South Africa, or an unpolluted, moonlit view of any large city in America.  Pop lit often features a black cover with a single image like a mask or a candle or a sewing machine or something, as if to say, “you must be Victoria Beckham in order to open me.” And then there’s your romance novel covers, which run the gamut from beautiful to inane to not-safe-to-leave-lying-around-the-house-during-your-kid’s-sixth-birthday-party. The higher budget the novel and the more bankable the novel, the hunkier the guy/the prettier the girl. Some of them end up looking pretty ridiculous – in fact, there are websites such as this one where you can ogle, gawk, and poke fun at the most awful covers from around the world.

The worst ones of all?

Movie tie-in covers. It’s a sad day when you need freakin’ Leonardo DiCaprio to sell The Great Gatsby, a piece of art with reputation Leo can only dream of even coming close to.