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The Tale of Despereaux

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Reading The Tale of Despereaux to my children (age nearly 5 and 6) was the best reading experience we have had so far and the first that was a "real" enough book that I'm entering it in my library.The language in the story is beautiful, the plot keeps you moving along--enough that is predictable that you can follow it, but also many surprises and twists. It is a good introduction to nonlinear storytelling, as each of the successive parts begins earlier than the first and then they all converge together. And the characters are all flawed, but ultimately a combination of hope, forgiveness, storytelling and the metaphorical and literal light win out. But not in a complete happily-ever-after way, but in a complex and mixed way.In all of these ways, it is a good antidote to the black-and-white good and evil and the happily ever after of Disney. It taught my children about virtues and faults, while fully entertaining all of us.It looks like most of Kate DiCamillo's other chapter books are a little old for them, but that won't stop me from reading them on my own.
The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray

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"Novella" is an overstatement for the length of this book, about 50 normally formatted pages. But it is a gross understatement of the epic scope and depth of humanity it portrays. The main character, Joaquim Soares da Cunha or Quincas Water-Bray, is dead for the entire book. But he is also fuller and more alive than most fictional creations.The plot is simple enough: Quincas, dubbed "the king of the tramps of Bahia" by the newspapers, is found dead. A formerly respectable civil servant, he has spent the last decade drinking rum, gambling, consorting with prostitutes, and living under a different name apart from his family. His respectable daughter, brother, and their spouses claim the body and prepare it for a respectable burial. But then his tramp friends come, take the body out for one last night on the town, pour liquor down its throat, carry it around as if its drunk, refer to it as if its alive, and ultimately it "chooses" to jump off a boat and be buried at sea.But in the course of this, reflected through the perceptions and memories of others, you get a glimpse of a larger-than-life charismatic figure in the slums and the contradictory ways in which he is viewed and processed by two sets of people. Plus it is also humorous and humane--albeit not exactly in a laugh-out-loud sort of a way.
el tiempo de las mariposas, En

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A beautiful novel about the Mirabal sisters, who were brutally murdered by the waning Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. It is told in chapters narrated in the very different voices of the four sisters: Dedé who survives, Patria the oldest and most Christian, Minerva the activist revolutionary from a young age, and Maria Teresa the baby of the family whose chapters are her diary.It is also one of the great novels of a semi-totalitarian government and what it means for a group of young women growing up outside the capital. It makes for an interesting pairing with Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat, which covers much of the same period, has some of the same events, but does it all from a different perspective. The difference is that In the Time of the Butterflies is much more subtle. It has the same torture, de facto child rape by Trujillo and other horrors, but all of it is more understated and seen through the eyes of the girls in the story. That all makes the one episode where torture is more directly described that much more powerful.
Schroder

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A moving novel, in the form of a first person confession by a father who kidnaps his six year old daughter from his estranged wife, goes on the run for about a week and (eerily given the timing) is finally caught in a manhunt in Boston.As a father of a 6 year-old (and, like the narrator, born in 1970--although the similarities end there given his East German birth, general fraudulence, and estrangement from his wife), I found Eric Kennedy's relationship with his daughter believable, touching, and painful--as he struggles with how to engage with her and then only finally figures it out in their last hours together before his arrest.The narrative voice was also well done, with a resoundingly authentic and earnest but not always fully self-aware recounting of a less than authentic life.
The Last Policeman: A Novel

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In some ways, The Last Policeman is a typical police procedural: a Concord New Hampshire policeman stumbles on a person who appears to have hung himself, he becomes convinced it is a murder in spite of everyone from the DA to the coroner saying it is suicide, he perseveres and investigates it, along the way there is a tiny bit of thrill (in the form of one lame attempt on his life and one additional murder) and in the final chapter the murderer is revealed.In some ways, The Last Policeman is a typical near-future pre-apocalyptic hard science fiction novel. It explains how a rather large asteroid is headed towards Earth, how it's peculiar orbit originally misled scientists about its orbit, how it is estimated that it result in the deaths of over half of humanity. All of this well told starting in media res but then providing a significant past story of how the asteroid was first discovered, the rising odds of it hitting, the announcement that it was certain, and the impact all of this had on society.By combining these two The Last Policeman becomes significantly better than either. In part that is just a way of alleviating the diminishing returns to either genre. But, more importantly, they actually fit together: the imminent end of the world is an important part of the explanation of how the investigation proceeds, the motives of the people involved, and ultimately in part the solution to the murder itself.Lurking beneath all of this is more of a conspiracy/thriller plot, with secret Federal installations, rumors of a Federal moon base, and ultimately the dissolution of the local Concord police department and its replacement by Federal authority. This all plays a relatively minor part in this book--but you get the sense that it will all loom increasingly large in the next books of what I believe is supposed to be a trilogy.
Brat Farrar

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Long on my to-read list, I finally got around to Brat Farrar. And it was excellent: well written, well plotted, psychologically interesting. It feels like it could be an even better movie than book, although it does not seem like one has been made.The setup is an English family, the children are orphans being raised by their aunt, the oldest son is about to turn 21 and get his inheritance, when someone claiming to be his (slightly) older twin who was presumed drowned in a suicide eight years earlier appears. There is no mystery about the claimant: the reader knows it is false and instead Brat Farrar is pretending to be the twin in part to collect the fortune, but also to be around all of their horses. The interest lies in what happens with this and the question of whether he will be discovered, how, and what impacts all of it will have on what seems to be a closely knit family.
Captain Pantoja and the Special Service: A Novel

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One of Mario Vargas Llosa's earlier novels, at first it appears to be a light farce, albeit an extremely well written one, but it evolves and develops into something much deeper and more moving.The story is about the straitlaced logistics officer Captain Pantoja who is assigned to set up mobile brothels in the Amazon to divert the troops from pursuing (and often raping) local women. Captain Pantoja brings his astonishing efficiency to the task, with such steps as surveys about how often men need the services, timing how long it takes, experimenting with factors that can reduce the time, and using all of this to calculate the resources he will need and how to deploy them. All of this grows well beyond his initial imagination as he becomes increasingly embroiled in the world.The chapters are organized in a number of different ways. The opening and some subsequent chapters are a shifting, multiple perspective dialogue where almost every paragraph is in quotation marks but they narrate a series of conversations, often shifting back and forth, not just one. Some of the other chapters are letters or radio broadcasts And many of the other chapters are in the form of military dispatches, hilarious for the precision and military jargon around prostitution and other aspects of sex. Some is particularly farcical, like the prostitutes creating a "Hymn" for the group, called the "special service," that refers to the Peruvian Army but not the Navy. Given the Navy's support for the operation, they are upset and want themselves named in the "hymn" as well. This leads to a series of letters, apologies, and ultimately the problem being rectified. As such, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service has a comfortable place in the satire of military life from Catch-22 to MASH.But it ultimately transcends it and does so much more, particularly with the character of Captain Pantoja and how he treats the prostitutes with dignity, creates an esprit de corps like in the Army, and makes them feel patriotic--all of which he does in the face of significant pressure by just about everyone to the contrary.Also of some interest is that many of Vargas Llosa's subsequent books are in here in some form or another. This is most clear with Brother Francisco, a renegade religious figure who develops a following in the Amazon--prefiguring the Counselor in The War of the End of the World. And Iquitos, the wild Amazonian city, plays a big role here--like it does in The Dream of the Celt. And finally the story itself seems like something Pedro Camacho from Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter would have dreamed up, including a character (the assistant to the madam) who is reminiscent of Camacho himself.
Ways of Going Home: A Novel

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There was a lot that was good in Ways of Going Home, and it was generally very readable, but ultimately it seemed a little thin and did not fully work for me. The postmodernism became somewhat wearying, in part because it did not have enough else to sustain ones interest.The novella is divided into parts. The first is the story of a boy meeting a girl in the wake of the 1985 earthquake and his agreeing to spy on his neighbor for her. The second part is the author himself writing the first part. The third part returns to the story when the boy/author meets the girl again twenty years later and has an affair with her. The final part returns to the writer talking about writing the book.One of the recurring themes in the book is dictatorship and the impact it has on children and how it is perceived by them. It is also about writing and remembering and creating characters. Overall it seems ambitious and only partly successful--but I would be interested in reading more by Alejandro Zambra.
La Chartreuse De Parme

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I started The Charterhouse of Parma about fifteen years ago and didn't get through the first chapter. This time I made it through that chapter which was still tough, through the next couple of chapters were perfectly readable but relatively compelling, but when about one-sixth of the way into the book Gina del Dongo (later Countess Pietrnera, then Duchess Sanseverina for the bulk of the book) comes into her own, Count Mosca is introduced, and the focus shifts to the Principality of Parma, the book really takes off. It becomes a combination of intrigue in the court of a petty despot, romance, adventure, and love story--all strung together with ironic detachment by a narrator who does not seem to have even decided who is the main character or what type of story he is telling. As such, it reads almost like a realistic and compiled chronicle of a period in Parma.The politics are one part Machiavelli, but with the Prince occasionally restrained with the worry about how he will be depicted in the Paris newspapers. And the love triangle is borderline absurd, but it is compelling and moving nonetheless.The essence of Stendhal's attitude in writing the book is best captured by this relatively rare piece of narrative commentary:"But the reader may be somewhat weary of all these procedural details, no less than of all these court intrigues. From which one may draw this moral: that the man who comes near a court compromises his happiness, if he is happy, and in every case, makes his future depend on the intrigues of a chambermaid. On the other hand, in a republic like America you have to suffer the tedium of fawning upon the common shopkeepers all day long and becoming as stupid as they are; and over there, there’s no opera."
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