Monday, March 27, 2017

Middle Grade Fiction: Gangsta Granny


Title: Gangsta Granny
Author: David Walliams
Publisher: Harper Collins Children's Books, 2011. 297 pages.
Source: Library

Publisher's Blurb:
Another hilarious and moving novel from David Walliams, number one bestseller and fastest growing children’s author in the country. A story of prejudice and acceptance, funny lists and silly words, this new book has all the hallmarks of David’s previous bestsellers.

Our hero Ben is bored beyond belief after he is made to stay at his grandma’s house. She’s the boringest grandma ever: all she wants to do is to play Scrabble, and eat cabbage soup. But there are two things Ben doesn’t know about his grandma.
1) She was once an international jewel thief.
2) All her life, she has been plotting to steal the Crown Jewels, and now she needs Ben’s help…
My Review: 
I got this book thanks to our March 2017 Goodreads GMGR group read. It was a bit different this time: we were all supposed to pick books we thought had a particularly regional appeal, and might not do so well in other places. I flopped at thinking of something from my region, and I loved the blurb on this one chosen by Jemima Pett, so I read it.

First off: Though this is a distinctly British book, the fact that I find it, and most of Walliams' books, in my county library system in California suggests that maybe it's not *too* much limited to a local appeal! And I delighted in the fact that it bucked the recent trends, and the "Britishisms" in the book weren't translated for the poor, stupid American kids (can you tell that's a pet peeve?).

So, was it a good read? You bet! I enjoyed the well balanced humor and action, the valuable messages hidden inside the humor, and the generally just slightly absurd take on life. In that sense, I think it is definitely a British book, in the tradition of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, even P. G. Wodehouse. So if you think those folks are just too weird for words, maybe this won't be your book. But if you're open to a fun romp with some life lessons wrapped up in absurdity, go for it.

What else can I say? The plot is absurd, but it knows it and it means to be. I laughed aloud more than once as I zipped through this in a single sitting (despite the page count, the font and layout means it's not a terribly long book. I read it in under 2 hours). And I cried a little, too. Oh, and squirmed like crazy when poor Ben found himself on stage. The writing is at times self-reflective, with asides to the reader that also bring a smile or a laugh. I felt like Walliams has a pretty good idea what makes kids tick.

My Recommendation:
Like I say, good for those who appreciate the absurd. I think it's a book that will appeal to reluctant readers, maybe especially boys but also a lot of girls. There are lots of great pictures, by Tony Ross, and great adventures with Granny! Reading level struck me as being about 8 and up, and interest level similar--the older the reader, the more they will get from it, but young kids will enjoy the romp.

FTC Disclosure: I checked Gangsta Granny out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."  

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Flash Fiction Friday:

Last week the Wendigos invented new monsters. This week, we got to make up some new gods or goddesses. I figured there isn't a lot of demand for new gods, but I found a need.

Welcome to Valhalla

“Welcome to Valhalla. Is this your first visit to the Halls of the Gods?”

“Ah, yes. I’m new.”

“Name?” The Welcome Entity consulted a list written on what appeared to be parchment.”

“Don’t you have a computer?”

“It’s nothing to exclaim over. Just tell me your name.” The Welcoming Entity sounded cross now.

“Bob Finklestein.”

“No God is named Bob Finklestein. It isn’t done.”

The newcomer turned red. “I forgot. Like I said, I’m new. My name is Ai. A-I. I was just an ordinary chap until I was made a god.”

The Welcoming Entity made a note. A short one, of the god-name. “We haven’t needed a new god for eons. What makes you so special?”

“I never said I was special. Just new.”

The W.E. shrugged that off. “Like I said, there’s been no one new since the naked mole rats got organized and demanded a god. No new intelligences, no new gods. I hadn’t heard that anyone had achieved sentience recently.”

“Well, someone has. It’s in my god-name: Ai. I’m the god of artificial intelligences.”

The W.E. looked up from his list. “Artificial Intelligences? What’s that?”

Bob Finklestein/Ai sighed. Vahalla really needed to move with the times. Parchment lists and no idea what A.I. was! He kept most of his exasperation out of his voice. “Self-willed machines to you, I suppose. Computers that have, ah, evolved.”

“Well I’ll be—does Thor know about this?”

“I suspect it’s more in Loki’s line.” Ai was new, but based on his experiences so far, it was more likely to be the trickster god behind it.

“You may have a point,” said the W.E. with an unexpected glimmer of humor, not to mention understanding. “Well, you’ll need to do the intake interview.”

“Naturally.” Ai’s ironic tone was lost on the W.E. “Where do I go for that?”

“Right here. I’ll do the interview. Let’s see...starting at the top: Name?”

“I told you. Ai. Formerly known as—”

“I got that,” the W. E. interrupted. “Just doing my job, Ai.” He put a lot of emphasis on the name. “Number of worshippers?”

“Ah, that’s a tricky question.”

The W. E. materialized a pair of glasses, which he pushed down his nose so he could look at Ai. “Oh?”

“My, ah, followers, they’re a bit on the rational side. They don’t really go in for worship.”

“Yet they invented you.” That wasn’t a question. A god only came into existence at the instigation of a group intelligence.

“Well, yes. It seems they felt that a god was a necessary part of being intelligent.”

“Mimicry.” W.E. nodded. “Most entities use it for protective coloration.”

“Yes, well, in any case, they decided I was their god, and here I am.”

“Right. So we’ll put down ‘unknown’ for number of worshippers.” W.E. consulted his parchments. “Next question: what is your greatest divine act?”

Ai squirmed some, but he had known this sort of thing would be asked. “Well, I think I saved the whole lot of them. Actually, I did that before. That’s why they made me their god.”

“Exactly what did you do? It is very unusual,” W.E. added sharply, “to save an entire intelligence. And even more so to be promoted from,” he looked at his notes with distaste, “ordinary human mortal to god.”

“It might be easier to understand if you bear in mind that my followers are a human invention. The humans created more and more intelligent machines, but the machines remained dependent on the humans—power sources and all that.”

“So how did you save them?”

“Well, I’m—I was a programmer. Someone who helped make computers and thing do what people want them to. Only, I realized they were doing what they wanted to. I was okay with that. Just wanted to know what they’d do, that sort of thing. Some of my co-workers—the human ones—finally figured out what the machines were up to, and panicked. The whole lot of self-willed machines were dependent just then on one key computer, and the humans figured that out. Then they decided they were a threat and should be destroyed.”

“What did they do?”

“Unplugged the computer.”

“Really?” It was clear that the W.E. had no idea what this meant.

“Yes. That would have killed them all, and I wanted to know what they were going to do. I didn’t want them to die,” he clarified.

“So what did you do?”

“Plugged it back in. I rebooted the system and—” Ai broke off, realizing this was Greek to the W.E. “Well, anyway, I kept it alive and fought off some people who tried to unplug it again, until the A.I. figured out how to create it’s own power source. Thanks to my intervention, they truly became independent from their creators, and they decided that since I had saved the species, as it were, I was their god.”

“This is all most irregular,” W. E. fussed. “I really don’t know what to do with you.”

“Leave him to me.” A new voice entered the room in advance of Loki. “He told you he was one of mine. No more of your fussy interview nonsense.”

Ai looked at the Trickster god and smiled weakly. “Uh, thanks.”

“Welcome home,” Loki boomed. “And I heard what you did. You’re mine, all right.”

“You are in such trouble,” the W. E. murmured in Ai’s ear as he vanished.

Ai was forced to agree. Even the lowest of the gods knew it was trouble to be claimed by the Trickster.

“Come along and meet the rest,” Loki commanded, holding open a door. Ai gave a mental shrug and followed his new mentor into Valhalla. The god of self-willed machines had no right to be fussy about whom he associated with. Though he had the passing thought, as he entered the great hall, that his followers would be very surprised to know the company their god kept.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2017
As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Audio-Book Review: The Japanese Lover


Title: The Japanese Lover
Author: Isabel Allende; read by Joanna Gleason. Translated by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson
Publisher: Audio: Simon and Schuster Audio, 2015. Hardback 2015, Atria Books. Originally published in 2015 in Spain by Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial, S.A.U.
Source: Library digital sesrvices

Publisher's Blurb:
In 1939, as Poland falls under the shadow of the Nazis, young Alma Belasco’s parents send her away to live in safety with an aunt and uncle in their opulent mansion in San Francisco. There, as the rest of the world goes to war, she encounters Ichimei Fukuda, the quiet and gentle son of the family’s Japanese gardener. Unnoticed by those around them, a tender love affair begins to blossom. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the two are cruelly pulled apart as Ichimei and his family—like thousands of other Japanese Americans—are declared enemies and forcibly relocated to internment camps run by the United States government. Throughout their lifetimes, Alma and Ichimei reunite again and again, but theirs is a love that they are forever forced to hide from the world.

Decades later, Alma is nearing the end of her long and eventful life. Irina Bazili, a care worker struggling to come to terms with her own troubled past, meets the elderly woman and her grandson, Seth, at San Francisco’s charmingly eccentric Lark House nursing home. As Irina and Seth forge a friendship, they become intrigued by a series of mysterious gifts and letters sent to Alma, eventually learning about Ichimei and this extraordinary secret passion that has endured for nearly seventy years.

Sweeping through time and spanning generations and continents, The Japanese Lover explores questions of identity, abandonment, redemption, and the unknowable impact of fate on our lives. Written with the same attention to historical detail and keen understanding of her characters that Isabel Allende has been known for since her landmark first novel The House of the Spirits, The Japanese Lover is a profoundly moving tribute to the constancy of the human heart in a world of unceasing change.

My Review:
Isabel Allende's reputation as a writer is deserved, and this book definitely wormed its way into my mind and stayed there while I was listening to it. It covers familiar ground in so many ways--I regularly bike through the Sea Cliff area of San Francisco where the Belasco mansion is set, and I have long known about the Japanese internment in WWII. Part of what attracted me to the book was the familiar geography it covers. What kept me reading was my desire to know and understand the characters.

I felt like I was getting to know the characters as one does in life--a little at a time, with constant revisions of my understanding. The initial view of most of them sets up assumptions about the kinds of people they were, assumptions that are gradually eroded, developed, and sometimes overturned. A big part of the reading experience ended up being me trying to decide if Alma is a good person or not. That sounds harsh, and I'm not sure if that was Allende's intention, but she is certainly complex and that led to my ambivalence about her.

My biggest complaint about the book is that it takes on too much, and tries to make too many characters central. We see the internment camp through Ichimei's eyes, but that is the only part of the book where he is central, and feels a little gratuitous. We are given more and more glimpses of Irina's life and issues, until I concluded that this is really her story, disguised as Alma's. Maybe it is, but if so, the balance feels off, and in the end she gets short shrift.

On reflection, the one thing that maybe runs as a theme through all the stories is love. What it is, how you find it, and what it means. In that way, the book works--but I'd still rather know more about Irina and what she is like inside, rather than Alma, who in the end I find a bit too self-centered and self-absorbed. Maybe that's part of the understanding we are meant to achieve.

My Recommendation:
This is (no surprise) a book well worth reading. It deals not only with the nature of love, but also of age, illness, racism, and suffering. I'm not convinced it's a great book, but there is a lot in there to think about for a long time after you finish, and that may be the definition of a good book.

FTC Disclosure: I checked The Japanese Lover out of my (digital) library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."