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Library Chicken Update CABIN-EXTRAVAGANZA 2017 : THE PREQUEL


Welcome to the weekly round-up of what the BookNerd is reading and how many points I scored (or lost) in Library Chicken. To recap, you get a point for returning a library book that you’ve read, you lose a point for returning a book unread, and while returning a book past the due date is technically legal, you do lose half a point. If you want to play along, leave your score in the comments!

CABIN-EXTRAVANGANZA, THE PREQUEL: Every July we pack up the cars for our annual family trip to Boone, NC (chosen because it is roughly halfway between Atlanta and my brother and sister-in-law’s home in Virginia Beach), where we stay in a rental “cabin” that, with three levels, a hot tub, excellent wifi, and an assortment of widescreen TVs, bears zero resemblance to any of the actual cabins I camped in during my outdoorsy youth. However, it is built of logs and there’s a nice fire pit in the back (not to mention a boulder-filled creek with a very convenient swimming hole) so I guess it’s sort of cabin-ish. Boone is a great little college town (Go Appalachian State Apps!), with unique restaurants, fun and funky shopping opportunities, and an assortment of great outdoor activities, so as soon as we’ve unloaded, we head inside the cabin and do our best NEVER TO GO OUTSIDE AGAIN. The family’s goals are to catch up on what’s been happening in our various lives, play board games from the truly impressive collection we’ve built up over the years, and nap as much as possible. MY goal is to read as many books as I can, even while being distracted by my loving family and their attempts to engage me in conversation and so-called bonding activities. As you can imagine, during the week prior to the cabin trip there is a flurry of last-minute housecleaning, packing, and frantic calls to make sure we remembered to get someone to take care of the pets. Meanwhile, I’m upstairs reading all the books that have to go back to the library and in the process not quite finishing the Library Chicken Update I was supposed to turn in before we left.


Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary With the Bard by Laura Bates

I’ve been trying to read more about our prison system, and in particular I am interested in education behind bars, both in terms of the men and women who choose to do that work, and the effects on the inmates who participate. Professor Laura Bates spent years teaching Shakespeare to maximum security inmates. Her memoir of that time exposes a world that few of us ever see, but I was surprised by her choice to focus almost exclusively on one particular student, Larry Newton, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole while still a juvenile. Bates has clearly been deeply affected by Newton, who she describes as extraordinarily talented and insightful, and there’s some fascinating stuff here, but I became impatient with her concentration on Newton’s story and their relationship and was disappointed not to learn more about her broader experience with the dozens of inmates she worked with over the years.
(LC Score: +1)


The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death by Colson Whitehead

Whitehead wrote this memoir of the time that a magazine staked him to play in the World Series of Poker several years before his novel, The Underground Railroad, won the Pulitzer Prize (and everything else), and gee, I sure hope he’s feeling better these days. His writing is smart and funny, but the tone of this memoir—written in his persona as a native of “the Republic of Anhedonia”—is cynical half-joking despair that never lets up. Ha? It’s hard for me to laugh when I’m worried about whether the author is eating and sleeping okay and whether someone is regularly checking up on him.
(LC Score: +1) 


By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie

Tommy and Tuppence mystery #4—and my favorite so far (with one left to go). Tuppence, now a grandmother, gets suspicious when an elderly woman seemingly disappears from an old folks’ home. This one is by far the best-plotted of Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence novels (yeah, okay, maybe there are some plotlines that don’t quite get wrapped up but what’s a loose end or two between friends?) and of course I always enjoy hanging out with the Beresfords.
(LC Score: +1)


The Old English Peep Show by Peter Dickinson

This is Dickinson’s second mystery novel starring the fabulously named Inspector James Pribble and I think I’m hooked. In 1960’s England, Pribble is sent to the country estate of a famous and wealthy family to explore the suicide of an old retainer, but all is not as it seems, especially since a large chunk of the estate has been converted into an Olde Englande theme park experience. With man-eating lions, which just you know isn’t going to end well. (Insert your favorite Jurassic Park quote here.)
(LC Score: +1)


The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

You know, I have loved books that everyone else hated and hated books that everyone else loved, so I get that reading is subjective. I generally try to be as positive as possible even when I didn’t particularly enjoy a specific book, and when it comes to official fanfic—like this “New Hercule Poirot mystery!”—my expectations are not high. But in this case, I kinda feel like I read it so you guys don’t have to. (In fairness to Hannah, I thought her Poirot was okay, it was the rest of the book that didn’t work for me.) (LC Score: +1)


Vermilion by Molly Tanzer

ARRGH. I loved loved LOVED the beginning of this book. Our heroine, Lou, is a Chinese-American psychopomp (essentially a freelance exorcist) in an 1870s San Francisco populated by ghosts, assorted undead, and sentient bears. Tanzer, you had me at the bears, but when you threw in SENTIENT SEA-LIONS (!!!) I immediately logged into the library system and put everything else you’ve ever written on hold. Unfortunately, the beginning just sets the stage and the main plot has Lou leaving San Francisco behind (the sea-lions, Lou, how could you leave the sea-lions?) to investigate why Chinese men are going missing in Colorado. And yes, there’s a Mysterious Sanatorium and other supernatural things to come, but I just didn’t find it as interesting as the initial set-up. Plus, once we got into the main plot I started having major issues with story and characterization. Mostly I just desperately wanted to go back to San Francisco. (Dear Ms. Tanzer, I will happily read an entire series of Lou’s psychopomp adventures in San Francisco—and please can she have a special sea-lion buddy?) Anyway, I’m still going to look for Tanzer’s other novels, but this one broke my heart a bit as it went from 'My New Favorite That I Must Tell Everyone About' to 'Flawed But With Some Great Ideas.' 
(LC Score: +1)


Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

This is the second Lauren Beukes novel I’ve read (after the equally excellent Zoo City) and I would just like to say that she is amazing. Moxyland is a near-future modern-cyberpunk tale of the corporate-ocracy told by four alternating narrators (one of whom is an art student who allows herself to become, via a sort of nanotech tattoo, a literal walking advertisement for a soda company). It is original and energetic and I couldn’t put it down. Now I just need to work up the courage to read her most recent novels: The Shining Girls (about a serial killer targeting bright young women throughout time) and Broken Monsters (about murders where human bodies are seemingly fused to animal bodies). (Beukes is great and I really want to read her latest books but all the reviews talk about their “brutal and disturbing violence” and I’m kind of a wimp and keep chickening out.)
(LC Score: +1)


The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan 

After Fagan’s end-of-the-world story The Sunlight Pilgrims I expected this earlier novel to also be science fiction, but there’s nothing otherworldly or futuristic here—it’s the story of a 15-year-old Scottish girl who’s been in and out of foster care and who is now in a group home waiting to see if she’ll be charged with murder. The storyline is bleak and violent, but surprisingly I didn’t find it a particularly bleak or depressing read, in part because Fagan allows the humanity of her protagonist to shine through and even leaves us with a tiny smidgen of hope.
(LC Score: +1)


The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Atwood’s retells The Odyssey from the point of view of Penelope and the twelve maids who were murdered by Odysseus upon his return. Short and entertaining (if a bit grim, topic-wise), and would make a great high school side-by-side read with the original.
(LC Score: +1)




Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

I have loved everything I’ve read by Helen Oyeyemi (White is for Witching, Mr. Fox, What is Not Yours is Not Yours) and this novel was no exception, but I struggled a bit getting through it. This was my second attempt and even with a running start I got stuck for a couple of week about a third of the way through. I hasten to add that this is a me problem, not a problem with the book. In this, her version of the “wicked stepmother” story, Oyeyemi deals with uncomfortable issues of race and parenting that made it a challenging read at times, though well worth it.
(LC Score: +1)


Deconstructing Penguins: Parents, Kids, and the Bond of Reading by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

This guide shares tips and techniques that the Goldstones have learned after years of hosting a series of book clubs for upper elementary and middle school students. I’ve found it a helpful resource when thinking about how to begin discussing literary analysis with middle-grade readers, and I picked it up for a reread to get ready for the middle school literature this fall. (Though clearly I’ve been hanging out with Amy too much, because every time the Goldstones talk about teaching the kids to be “book detectives” who find the meaning hidden within each book by the author, I think to myself, “The Post-Structuralists might have a bone to pick with you about that.”) HOMESCHOOL RECOMMENDED (despite those wacky post-structuralists).
(LC Score: +1)


The Great Brain is Back by John D. Fitzgerald

While working on a recent Summer Reading post I discovered that there was an 8th Great Brain novel I hadn’t read, published after Fitzgerald’s death, and of course I had to find a copy. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a necessary addition to the series; posthumously published works are hit or miss to begin with, and in this particular case, I really struggle with the character of Tom (the Great Brain) as he gets older. From a parental perspective, Tom does some terrible things to his siblings and friends (which, I have to say, did not bother me at all when I read and reread these books growing up), and in his first adventure here he ends up cheating his brother and taking a loss because he can’t stand the idea that little brother J.D. might actually have gotten the better of him this one time. As Tom enters teenagerhood that behavior stops being funny and clever and just-maybe-acceptable and starts to look a wee bit sociopathic. (I was comforted to read that the author, John D. Fitzgerald, also struggled with this as the characters aged, feeling that it was past time for Tom to mature and permanently reform, while the publisher insisted on his adventures continuing just the same as always.) Please do continue to pass along the original Great Brain books to any upper elementary readers in your vicinity, but I think it’s okay if you give this last one a miss.
(LC Score: +1)


The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier written by Alan Moore, art by Keith O’Neill

This Week In Comics (Part 1): Previously on Library Chicken, I reported on Scream for Jeeves, a Lovecraft-Wodehouse crossover. One might think that we had covered all the Cthulu/Jeeves mash-ups available, but not so! In Black Dossier, a collection of League histories from its earliest 17th century incarnation onwards, one short story has Bertie Wooster telling us about the time Lovecraftian monsters attacked his Aunt Dahlia’s home, Brinkley Court. (SPOILER: Gussie Fink-Nottle’s brain gets removed, but no one notices.) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, for those who are unfamiliar, is a group of Victorian heroes, including Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, Allan Quartermain, and Dr. Jeckyll, documented in a series of comic books by Alan Moore and Keith O’Neill. (There was also a truly awful movie adaptation that you should feel free to ignore.) This graphic novel brings some of the characters forward to 1958 (when, in this universe, Britain is just coming out of its 1984 Big Brother era) in a framing story where they must steal the files containing the history of the League. WARNING: I love the concept and all the literary references, but Black Dossier and the other comics in the series would qualify for a hard R-rating (violence and <ahem> quite a bit of sexual content) and are definitely NOT for kids.
(LC Score: +1) 


The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl & the Great Lakes Avengers

This Week in Comics (Part 2): This Squirrel Girl collection, made up of material from before the current run of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North and Erica Henderson, consists of a few miscellaneous appearances plus her adventures with the Great Lakes Avengers, most of which spoof Marvel Comics and their occasional grimdark tone. WARNING: While the GLA issues can be funny and entertaining, they are also cynical, violent, occasionally mean-spirited, and sometimes come awfully close to being outright offensive (all the while playing it up with cute little comments like “Look how offensive we’re being! Oh, that’s terrible! We’re going to get letters!” so that we can be sure to appreciate how clever and ironic they are). Plus: Deadpool guest-stars! Despite the incredibly adorable cover, these comics have a very different tone and spirit from the current run and are definitely NOT appropriate for young SG fans.
(LC Score: +1)

Library Chicken Score for 7/18/17: 14
Running Score: 72


On the to-read/still-reading stack for THE CABIN:

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (a mystery within a mystery)

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple (loved Where’d You Go, Bernadette, did NOT love This One Is Mine

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (squabbling adult siblings, my favorite)

The Vacationers by Emma Straub (more squabbling family members—on vacation!)