What It Means to Be Real: Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

cover imageWritten from a clever point of view that it took only about fifteen minutes of listening to Matthew Brown’s reading for me to warm up to, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks is narrated by Budo, the imaginary friend of Max Delaney, a smart eight-year-old boy with a great imagination, an eye for detail, and an unofficial diagnosis of being somewhere on the autism spectrum (although his father believes Max is just a “late bloomer.”) Thanks to Max’s strong imagination, Budo is very well formed for an imaginary friend – some of whom, he explains, are no more than spots on a wall, or are missing body parts, such as ears. Budo also claims that being imaginary, and only visible to Max, doesn’t mean he isn’t real.

Sounds cutesy, I know. At first it did seem just too convenient that Budo was constrained in some ways by the limits of Max’s imagination (who, though precocious, is still a child), yet at the same time, can sound and act very adult, learning things that Max can’t and even getting into friendly arguments with him. Budo speculates early on that when Max as a four-year old first brought Budo into being, he may have imagined him as a teenager, an adult,  or maybe “a boy with a grown-up’s brain.” Budo describes his strange place in the world living in the “spaces between  as straddling the fence. “I’m not exactly a kid, but I’m not exactly an adult either.”

But the author (and the talented audiobook narrator) manage to pull off this tricky adult-child voice, which could easily become grating. The voice of Budo talking about Max – his talents and his limitations – and about Max’s parents – how they argue over what is best for Max and whether he needs more than just patience – allow for insight into how it might feel to be Max, to have constant sensory overload around people, even family, and a high-functioning brain that’s more comfortable in a world of video games and imagined battles than in the real world.

Although he worries a lot about Max and tries to help him navigate the daily life of school and home, Budo also has his own existential concerns. He has seen many imaginary friends go “poof,” and he’s desperate to know what happens after the “poof.” He knows that he only exists as long as Max continues to believe in him. After the plot heats up, Budo’s place in Max’s world gets called into question even more. This would make a good book discussion book for a philosophically minded group. There’s a lot to talk about in the differences between Max and Budo, Max’s world and Budo’s world, and the different disconnects each of them has with the world of Max’s parents (i.e. the real world. Maybe?)

Read an excerpt of Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend here to get a sense of how the short sentences and chapters look on the page.

Read other reviews and find the link to a sample of the Macmillan audiobook on these blogs:
Jenn’s Bookshelves

The Literate Housewife

The Reading Frenzy (includes author interview)
Shelf Awareness (includes narrator interview)

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend
Dicks, Matthew (author)
Brown, Matthew (narrator)
Macmillan Audio
August 21, 2012
9781427225887
9 hours on 9 CDs

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this audiobook on CD from Macmillan Audio at Book Expo America.

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Nightlife in the Afterlife: Hereafter by Terri Bruce (Blog Tour)

Hereafter Blog Tour buttonIn Hereafter, an entertaining novel by first-time author Terri Bruce, 36-year-old Irene crashes her car driving home drunk after a night out with girlfriends and literally wakes up dead. It takes a little while for Irene to realize that she’s a ghost because she can still drive her car; her house in Salem, Mass., looks the same; her widowed mother still leaves annoying messages on Irene’s answering machine; and Irene has woken up wearing the same short, clingy, red dress from what seems like the night before.

But why can’t she remember anything after the big, harvest moon that looked like it was dead ahead on the road before her? Why did she wake up standing next to the car, not sitting behind the wheel? Why do vague memories of swirling water outside her car windows keep surfacing? Why didn’t anyone call the police to report a car parked on the side of the road by the river? And the biggest question of all – how could she have died before she’d done all the things she’d been meaning (vaguely) to do someday? Like grow up and stop acting like a teenager, for example.

As a ghost, Irene feels so much like herself that she finds it hard to accept that the afterlife can’t be the same as her old life (i.e. lots of hanging out in bars with friends) without all the downsides (e.g.  jobs, chores, family obligations, and hangovers.) Although Irene is someone who has to learn everything the hard way, as her father told her once, she luckily finds early on a good (though underage) friend in Jonah, a teenager from Irene’s neighborhood who has investigated theories of the afterlife and experimented enough with out-of-body experiences that he can see dead people like Irene. Mature and sensible, Jonah is like a 36-year-old in a 14-year-old’s body, while with Irene it’s more like the other way around.

Hereafter is a contemporary, paranormal fantasy that uses dark humor (also sarcasm, innovative insults, and ironic observations) to reflect on the serious topic of how best to live, and includes numerous factoids (mostly from Jonah) on beliefs about an afterlife in different cultures and at different times. There’s a bit of sexual tension but the author doesn’t go overboard with sex scenes, keeping readers interested instead with tight dialogue and nuggets gleaned from her extensive research. Readers looking for a lighthearted book that still touches on some serious themes or for a novel with fantasy elements that doesn’t feature a sexy vampire huntress or a paranormal detective agency might try Hereafter. Set in the fall in Salem and Boston, it would be an especially good one to read in September or October.

Author Terri Bruce has generously offered an international giveaway, with your choice of either a print copy or a e-book (in any format) of Hereafter. Giveaway runs through Sept. 10. Comments on this review are welcome but not necessary to enter the giveaway.

Click here to enter giveaway contest (Open internationally)

This is stop #6 on the Hereafter blog tour. The next stop is author Kristi Petersen Schoonover‘s blog, where Terri Bruce will be writing a guest post.

Check out Stops 1-5 for contests, other giveaways, and more info on Hereafter and author Terri Bruce:

8/13/12 Verbose Veracity HEREAFTER Excerpt Reading

8/14/12 Little Read Riding Hood Guest Post (Favorite Books w/Red Dresses) on the Cover) and Giveaway (copy of HEREAFTER)

8/15/12 Sonnet O’Dell Interview

8/16/12 I’m a Book Shark Guest Post (Top Ten Books w/Ghosts)  and Giveaway

8/17/12 Kelly A. Harmon Guest Post (Chinese Ghost Month) and The Writers’ Lens Blog Tour Writing Contest Start

For a list of all stops on the Hereafter blog tour, click here.

Hereafter
Eternal Press
August 1, 2012
eBook ISBN: 9781615727247
$7.95
Print ISBN: 9781615727254

Disclosure: I received a free e-galley of Hereafter from the author when I volunteered to participate in the Hereafter blog tour, but have also paid for a paperback copy from Barnes and Noble either for myself or to donate to the library so others can read it. (I haven’t decided which.)

A Thread of Sadness: The Untelling by Tayari Jones (AUDIO)

Cover image of The Untelling audio editionIn The Untelling, an emotional roller coaster of a second novel by Tayari Jones, author of the critically acclaimed novel Silver Sparrow (Algonquin, 2011), only Aria Jackson’s prickly mother calls her by her given name, “Ariadne,” a too-grand name from Shakespeare that Aria – who already stuck out in school due to entering puberty very early – never felt comfortable with.

Aria and her sister, Hermione, along with their mother, survived the single-car accident that killed their father (the driver) and six-month-old baby sister Genevieve when Aria was only nine and the family was on the way to her dance recital. At age 25, Aria has graduated from college, gotten a job, and is sharing an apartment in an un-gentrified neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia with a friend, but she still remembers the accident vividly – how her father swerved to avoid an oncoming car, how the cake she was holding in her lap was ruined, and how “silent and impossibly bent” Genevieve looked in her mother’s arms as her mother hurried out of the front passenger seat, leaving Ariadne in the back.

This traumatic car accident left the Jackson family broken, financially and psychologically. The Untelling is the story, narrated by Aria, of how she tries to go on to have a normal life, despite being permanently branded as different from girls with whole families. Reading between the lines, the reader gathers that Aria has never felt that she really belongs, has few friends, struggles to act natural around people, and regrets not having the close-knit family she had before the accident.

The audio edition of The Untelling (AudioGo, 2005,) is narrated very well by Michelle Blackmon. It must have been hard to figure out how to pitch Aria’s voice because of her unusual personality – a mix of naivete and defensiveness; the reader can’t be sure how perceptive she is about her roommate, her boyfriend, her mother, or even herself. Other characters in the novel range from Cynthia, a neighborhood crack addict, to Lawrence, Aria’s boss at the nonprofit literacy agency she works at who wants to adopt a baby with his partner, and Michelle Blackmon differentiates the voices well, without making the male voices unnaturally gruff or deep. All of the main characters in the book are African-American – an interesting perspective for readers outside of the black community who are accustomed to reading white-centric fiction – but race isn’t a theme of the novel.

Readers who liked The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate (also a first-person story of a woman with a messed-up family) or who like realistic novels about women’s lives of quiet desperation will be moved by Aria’s story in The Untelling. (Most mainstream reviews I’ve seen give away a lot of the plot, so beware of spoilers, even visiting the publisher’s Web site.)

I haven’t read Silver Sparrow yet, but plan to soon.

The Untelling
Jones, Tayari
Narrator: Blackmon, Marjorie
AudioGo
ISBN-13: 978-0-7927-3638-7
Unabridged
Length:  8 Hr 25 Min, on 7 CDs

Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel

Cover image of Goodbye for NowIn Laurie Frankel‘s second novel, Goodbye for Now, there are many moments that will bring a tear to your eye, but not a single sappy sentence. I loved it. When an advanced reading copy came in the mail last week, I bumped it to the top of the TBR pile and read it in two days. To shower some of my highest praise on this book: Goodbye for Now reminded me of Laurie Colwin.

Although I haven’t read Laurie Colwin’s Happy All the Time;  Shine on, Bright and Dangerous Object; Family Happiness; and Goodbye Without Leaving in years, they remain among my favorite novels of all time. Although they were about relatively privileged New Yorkers in their late twenties and early thirties, the novels made the domestic lives of these smart, witty people, who were also down-to-earth and kind to each other, so irresistibly appealing that readers were drawn in and forgave them any faults, wanting only the best for them all. Throw in computer technology, social media, and improved  forms of electronic communication and you’ve extended the boundaries for a contemporary comedy of manners with family, friends, colleagues, and beyond. In Goodbye for Now, the author’s tweaking of the geek-boy-meets-geek-girl theme and the characters’ philosophical musings on digital afterlives (when we die, our Facebook pages remain) add to the humor and the pathos of the characters’ everyday lives.

The main characters in Goodbye for Now live in Seattle, not New York, but Sam Elling and Meredith Maxwell seem as made for one other as Laurie Colwin’s couples did (Sam’s new online dating algorithm doesn’t go wrong.) Here’s Sam, a lonely software engineer, meeting Meredith for the first time, having tried his newly developed software on himself:

The next step for Sam, of course, was to try it himself. He wanted to know if it worked. He wanted to prove that it worked. But mostly, he wanted it to work. He wanted it to search the world and point, to reach down like the finger of God and say, “Her.” How good was this algorithm? First time out, it set Sam up with Meredith Maxwell. She worked next door. In the marketing department. Of Sam’s own company. For their first date, they met for lunch in the cafeteria at work. She was leaning against the doorframe grinning at him when he got off the elevator, grinning helplessly himself.
“Meredith Maxwell,” she said, shaking Sam’s hand. “My friends mostly call me Max.”
“Not Merde?” Sam asked, incredulous, appalled with himself, even as he was doing so. Who made a joke like that–pretentious, scatological, and French–as a first impression? Sam was awkward and off-putting and a little gross.
Incredibly, Meredith Maxwell laughed. She thought it was funny. She thought Sam was funny. But it wasn’t a miracle. It was computer science.

Both in their early thirties and unattached, Sam and Meredith (forever known to Sam as “Merde”) fall in love so easily and undramatically that when events conspire to have them moving in together, it makes perfect sense to start the living-happily-ever-after part of their lives right away, now that the wonders of computer technology and Sam’s programming genius have brought them together. It’s best not to know much more of the plot in advance because serendipity and bolts from the blue play a major role in how the story goes, so I won’t say much more here, except that the theme of loss runs through the novel starting with the sudden death of Sam’s mother when Sam was only thirteen months old, leaving Sam’s father (also a software engineer) to miss her for many years and Sam with a hole in his life where his mother should have been and no memories of his own stored up.

I hope Goodbye for Now won’t be marketed as a romantic story for women, because there’s so much more here…about grieving, marriage, friendship, artificial intelligence, and (of course, as in all the best novels) the motives of the human heart. Male readers of male authors who write humorous yet sharply observed novels and sometimes touching novels like Jonathan Tropper, Nick Hornby, and Tom Perrotta, should also like Goodbye for Now. (Look! There are model airplanes on the cover, not shoes or a thin, pale white woman in a dress.) If you are a reader of either sex who likes novels by Meg Wolitzer (Surrender, Dorothy), or Carolyn Parkhurst (The Dogs of Babel), or Laurie Colwin, you should also pick up Goodbye for Now as soon as it comes out.

Goodbye for Now
Frankel, Laurie
Doubleday
Aug. 7, 2012
978-0-385-53618-9
288 pp., $25.95 U.S./$30.oo CAN

Disclosure: I received an advance reading copy of Goodbye for Now from Doubleday through LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer program.
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How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr & Saving June by Hannah Harrington

Doing two overdue reviews in one post today! How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr and Saving June by Hannah Harrington are both realistic young adult novels that deal with grief after sudden death, so it actually makes sense to review them together. They’re not all that similar, but both have several scenes that might make tears spring to your eyes, so have tissues handy while reading if you’re a crier like me.
It’s refreshing in How to Save a Life, to have at least one of the two mother-daughter relationships in the book not be completely dysfunctional, and see it improve over the course of the story. Seventeen-year-old Jill MacSweeney is grieving for her father who died in an accident ten months ago, and still angry at the drunk driver who killed him, when she finds out that her mother has (insanely) decided to adopt a baby (sight unseen) from a pregnant teen she connected with online. To make matters worse, the pregnant girl, Mandy – just a little bit older than Jill – is traveling from Omaha to Denver to stay with Jill and her mother for a few weeks until the baby is born.
As readers, we get to know Mandy (naive and a little dishonest) from Jill’s point of view, and Jill (prickly and unappreciative of her friends and family) from Mandy’s perspective, as they sort out their mixed feelings while waiting for the baby. Mandy is afraid she’ll be as bad a mother as her own mother has been to her, sure that her baby will be better off with Jill’s mother. Jill, whose life and plans have already been upended once by the death of the parent she felt closest to, isn’t sure what she thinks of Mandy’s situation, but she’s sure she doesn’t like the idea of her mother starting over again with a newborn baby daughter.
Saving June is edgier than How to Save a Life, and the grief is more immediate. Just after her sister’s funeral, when the book begins, sixteen-year-old Harper Scott’s shock and sadness over her sister’s suicide is raw and new. No one knows why Harper’s seemingly perfect older sister June committed suicide right before graduating from high school. There were no warning signs, even in retrospect. Her mother wouldn’t allow her to go to college in California – a longtime dream of June’s – and there was boyfriend trouble, but June had still seemed to be okay.
The only clue to June’s state of mind that Harper finds is a mysterious mix tape filled with an earlier generation’s music that Harper never knew her sister listened to. When Harper, a prickly girl with Goth leanings (like Jill in How to Save a Life, by the way) hears at the funeral that her divorced parents plan to divide June’s ashes between them, she knows what she has to do.
After running into a brooding guy outside her house after the funeral who’s not the sort of person June would normally hang out with (i.e. not a prom king type), Hannah discovers a connection between June and this musically opinionated, annoying, but somehow sexy guy, Jake Tolan. She swallows her pride and asks him to drive her and her best friend Laney and the stolen urn of June’s ashes to California.
It’s a strange premise for a road trip novel, maybe a little unrealistic, but the book has definite teen appeal, with sparks of both sorts flying between Harper and Jake, the best-friend issues of Harper and Laney, passionate arguments over music, politics, and religion, and the partying that fills the trip. When they come to the end, they’re all a little more ready to face the void that June has left.

How to Save a Life                                           Saving June
Zarr, Sara                                                         Harrington, Hannah
Little, Brown, 2011                                            Harlequin Teen, 2011
978-0-316-036061, h.c.                                    978-037321-024-4, soft.
$17.99 U.S.                                                      $9.99 U.S.

DIsclosure: I received electronic advanced reader’s copies of How to Save a Life from the publisher Little, Brown (Hachette Book Group) and Saving June from the publisher Harlequin Teen through NetGalley.

Other opinions about How to Save a Life (all good):
The Compulsive Reader
The Readventurer
Rhapsody in Books

Other opinions about Saving June (all good):
Adventures of 2.0
My Books. My Life
Popcorn Reads

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