BITB Best Books of 2014

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It’s amazing to me how long the blog has been going.  I have our loyal readers to thank for that.  I know that we don’t always get a post every day, but we do try to bring the best reviews we can.  This year had some issues, too.  Illness (we’re better now), new jobs, moving, etc, but we managed to get past all of that and have brought in another new blogger for your enjoyment.

But onto the books.  As you know, Book in the Bag features regular posts from our panel of reviewers.  We all bring with us different backgrounds, experiences, tastes, etc.  The first time I did this, it seemed like the only books we liked were in German or were geared towards kids under eight.   The next year, we were into graphic novels, young adult, and tried-and-true favorites.  This year, it might be a little different – hell, it might surprise even us.

To be considered a top book of 2014, the book had to be given a five out of five review from someone on our panel of important people (ie, our staff reviewers).  The books are:

  • Big Appetites – Christopher Boffoli
  • The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind – William Kamkwabama
  • Invincible: The Ultimate Collection 1 – Robert Kirkman, Corey Walker, Ryan Ottley
  • Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey – Emma Rowley
  • Matilda – Roald Dahl
  • Proud Too Be Weirrd – Ralph STEADman
  • The Gurkah’s Daughter – Prajwal Parajuly
  • Mr. Wuffles – David Weisner
  • Thor, God of Thunder – Jason Aaron
  • Choose Your Own Autobiography – Neil Patrick Harris

Phew.  It looks like we were a tough crowd this year.  Hopefully we’ll find more enjoyable reading next year!

But what about you guys?  What were your favorite books to read in 2014?

Book Review – The Missing Golden Ticket

TITLE: The missing golden ticket and other splendiferous secrets
AUTHOR: Roald Dahl
ILLUSTRATOR: Quentin Blake
FORMAT: paperback
PUBLISHED: 2010

The missing golden ticket and other splendiferous secrets is a compendium of Dahl facts and excerpts, recipes and more. It includes a deleted chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, little comments he made about each month, and even a quiz.

Here’s the thing. As an avid Dahl person – hey, I warned you – I have two such books on my shelf that aren’t this book. And the overlap is incredible. The stuff about the seasons is all new and exciting, but this exact quiz is in another book, as is the excerpt. I’d rather see bonus content on any other book out there at this point.

So I’ll make this review short and sweet. If you haven’t read such a book about Dahl, I really think you should. Pick one, any one will do. But if you have, you only need to read the one.

3/5

Book Review – The Mildenhall Treasure

TITLE: The Mildenhall Treasure
AUTHOR: Roald Dahl
ILLUSTRATOR: Ralph Steadman
FORMAT: Hardback
PUBLISHED: 2000
NOTE: This was originally done as a story for the New Yorker just after WWII. It was redone into a children’s book in 1977.

The Mildenhall Treasure is the true story about a man named Gordon who is asked to plow a field because a man named Ford is too busy to do it himself. When plowing, Gordon finds a treasure trove of Roman silver. Unfortunately, Ford is a greedy crook and he cons Gordon out of it.

There’s not much to say about the story, and since it’s true I can’t really comment about much of the content. I will say that I was aware of the story beforehand, though, and I liked the presentation of this. I would, however, have liked to have actuall names of people and not just “a man named Ford” for the characters at play, but that was the writing style at the time.

Again, not illustrated by Quentin Blake, who did most of Dahl’s stuff, but the illustrations for this are in some cases actual oil painting, and they’re awaesome. I actually sat there wondering which ones I’d want on my wall if I were given a choice.

Still, it’s slightly short of perfect, so 4/5.

Book Review – The Minipins

TITLE: The Minipins
AUTHOR: Roald Dahl
ILLUSTRATOR: Patrick Benson
FORMAT: Hardback
PUBLISHED: 1991, just after his death.
NOTE: This is probably the last thing he wrote before he died.

Before I get to this review, I’m going to apologize in advance – after reading Matilda (see the review a couple weeks ago), I decided that I really missed the writing of Roald Dahl and I went back to read the ones that I hadn’t read before now. You’ll be seeing a lot of his stuff for the next couple weeks.

Anyway.
I wasn’t sure if I had read The Minipins before now or not, and I was sure that if I had, it wasn’t a childhood book, it was a go-back-and-read-Dahl type of a thing, so I started there.
Turns out, I’d read it, so I went for the re-read.

In this book, Little Billy is a good little boy who always does what his mother tells him, although one day he decides his life is boring and sets out for the woods, despite the Whangdoodles, Hornswogglers, Snozzwanglers and Vermicious knids that live in the forest. I have to say, with the original Willy Wonka movie one of my all-time favorite movies (despite being nothing like its book), having references that cross seemingly unrelated books really does make me smile.
What he actually finds in the forest is a fire-breathing creature on the forest floor, and an entire civilization of teeny-tiny people (who fly around on birds) living in houses built into the trunks of trees. Little Billy deals with the creature, and Don Mini rewards him for life.

Okay, I have to say this.
First of all, this sounds more like some weird story you make up on the spot than an actual children’s story book. (But, this being his last book *sob* I guess I can understand how his storytelling had changed a bit…) I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing, it just feels more stream-of-consciousness than well planned out.
Second of all, ‘Don Mini’ sounds like a mob boss name. Just sayin’. Also, ‘Little Billy’ is about as generic as they come. I wish they would have just called him Billy instead of Little Billy every freakin’ time.

With that said, I did still like the story. The Minipins sound fantastic, the references to tie this book to other stuff Dahl has written were awesome, and anyway, it still feels like a Dahl story, so there is that.
According to the dust jacket, it’s geared at 3-8 year olds. The book seems a little wordy for most three-year-olds, although some of the kids I know would have been okay with it.

I’m going to give the book 4/5.

Book Review – Matilda

TITLE: Matilda
AUTHOR: Roald Dahl
PUBLISHED: 1988 (Originally, my verson, i dunno, but they’re the same)
FORMAT: illegal eBook*

 

So, it may be cheating to pick a book that I’ve read no less than 100 times, but I’m okay with it.  The first time I read <em>Matilda</em>, I was probably 10, and Roald was probably already gone from this world, which makes me sad.  As voracious a reader as I am, I never even had a concept of telling him such, and it’s too late.  But that is a tangent, so let me attempt to stay on track.  On a mostly related side note, I once had a streak of reading this book so much that the librarian outright denied me the ability to check it out and started funneling me other books as soon as they were made a part of the library’s system.  (The Jenny Archer series comes to mind…) She ordered me to buy my own copy, which I did, and that did not deter me.  I liked – and still do – the feel of a hardback book that has been given the library treatment, cover coated, taped to the book, etc.  There was something special about the crinkle of the paper in my hands.  My local Waldenbooks didn’t have a hardback, so I settled for a paperback copy.  I was sorely disappointed.

Anyway…

Matilda Wormwood is a young girl who is totally ignored by her family and brilliant despite it all.  She’s also a bit mischevious and sweet and awesome and everything else.  I always related a little to her (I was the only one in kindergarten who could read going in, although I wasn’t quite at the Dickens level).  And I just genuinely liked the characters in the book.  In her story, she deals with the crap in her world the best she can and gets exactly what she needs in the end.

This time through, I decided to ask myself why I liked the story so much, and I realized just how brilliant Roald Dahl is, and just how awesome British society twenty-five years ago was.  For starters, the book is obnoxious and rude and mean and everything else – child after child gets outright abused by the headmistress.  She calls them foul, she tells them how they’re the boils on the buttocks of the world, she tells them they’re stupid and useless and everything else.  And then she grabs them by the hair or the ears or the whatever and flings them about.

I’m not saying I like an obnoxious and rude character – we’re not supposed to like Miss Trunchbull – but I liked that the characters aren’t dumbed down or sugar coated or whatever.  I don’t think this book would have flown past the censors today.

And I liked that the language isn’t stupid and rhymey and stilted.  I can name entire series’ of books that are so dumbed down for readers that the author refused to use contractions.  This book, though…. at some point in the story, Matilda and the librarian are talking about reading and not understanding everything.  The librarian gives the best gem of advice – let the words wash around you like music.  And that’s good advice for the readers too.  I don’t think that anything is going to be over the heads of your average eight year old, but if you don’t get it, just enjoy the ride.

That’s probably why this book has stood up so well.  There are plenty of children’s or mid grades books that I loved that if I read today, I’d be like “oh, that was a great trip down memory lane… ” but I wouldn’t care much for the book anymore.  But this book… I pick it up yearly at least – and mostly, it’s not for the nostalgia.  it’s because I genuinely love the story and want to read it again. And I think it’s pretty telling that the story works just as well for me as an adult as it did for me as a kid so many years ago.

I know this is a shocker, but 5/5.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Earlier tonight, I searched online for a free eBook copy of Matilda, because I wanted to reference something.  I’m pretty sure (like totally) that it was an illegal eBook.  Before you get on me about it, the only reason I did it was because I was too lazy to move my laptop, stand up, walk from the living room, down the hallway, into the computer room/guest room/library and find one of at least three copies that I own.  The paperback and hardback of this book are all the same unless a special edition.  Trust me on this; I’m the closest thing to an expert since Roald himself.

Writer Wednesday – Lauren Rachel Tharp

Let’s start with the basics. Who are you?
My name is Lauren Rachel Tharp.

Tell us (briefly) about you…
I’m 28 years old, I’m hypoglycemic, and I’m a cat owner. Oh, and I’m a writer!

…and a bit about what you’ve written…
I’m a freelance writer for hire. I specialize in taking “dull” topics and making them interesting. Copywriting.

When I’m not doing that, I’m working on short stories, poems, and my young adult novels.

…and what you’re working on right now.
At this exact moment, I’m pretty wrapped up in marketing The Ballad of Allison and Bandit, my first published young adult novel. It’s been very exciting! Next week I’m scheduled to speak to 900 teenagers… Which has left me both ecstatic and absolutely terrified. Haha.

After that, I’ll be working on my next young adult novel. I’ve already written down a ton of notes. It will be a while before it’s finished, but I’m prepared to jump right in.

And, of course, my freelance work over at littlezotz.com.

What are your earliest book-related memories?
My dad used to read aloud to me every night. And then taught me how to read via comic books—mostly Uncle Scrooge & Donald Duck. I adore Don Rosa’s Life and Times series.

He also read a TON of Nancy Drew books aloud to my mother and me during family time. We’d all sit around for a couple hours each night and he’d read them…

However, the first “real” book I read on my own was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I re-read it about once a year.

What are your three favorite books?
The Phantom Tollbooth will always have a special place in my heart. I’d put that at the top of the list forever. But the rest of the list… It’s always changing. I love the Ramona Quimby books by Beverly Cleary, but I also love Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. I adore Roald Dahl, but I also get a kick out of Sophie Kinsella. And Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is brilliant too! And if you throw comic books and graphic novels into the mix… my goodness! Forget it. This question is impossible.

How many books to do you read at any given time? What are you reading now?
I tend to read three books at a time: One fiction novel, one graphic novel, and one non-fiction novel.

Right now I’m re-reading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle as my fiction book, Absolute Boyfriend by Yuu Watase as my comic book (manga), and Robert Bly’s The Copywriter’s Handbook as my non-fiction book.

Finish this sentence; when I curl up with a book, I…
…am about to fall asleep. But I try very hard not to!

To re-read or not to re-read that is the question.
Oh, definitely re-read.

How likely are you to read a book that’s been recommended to you?
It sounds a bit mean, but it really does depend on who’s doing the recommending…

How likely are you to recommend a book (that isn’t yours)?
Extremely likely! Haha. I recommend books to people all the dang time. Actually, I recommend all of the books I’ve mentioned in the previous questions!

What do you look for in a good book?
Good pacing. A dash (or a lot) of humor. Good characters and dialogue can get you far with me, even if your plot is simple.

Why do you write?
Because I must!

If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be?
Extremely sad.
Or maybe a private detective?

Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Many of my stories start as dreams. So sleep is pretty important. Haha. I also use my own life as a source of inspiration. Write what you know, right?

How do the people in your life seem to view your writing career?
There were a few worried naysayers when I first quit my day job to become a writer full-time, but as soon as I started making a living off of it, they were like “Oh. Okay!” Hahaha.

As Cyndi Lauper says, “Money changes everything.”

Are there any stereotypes about writers that you don’t think are true?
All of the stereotypes I disagree with have to do with liquids: “All writers drink coffee.” “All writers are drunks by night.”

No and no. I don’t drink coffee or liquor and writing is what takes up most of my time.

What do you see as the biggest challenge today for writers starting out?
Getting noticed. There are so many writers out there. It’s hard enough to be just starting out, but you’re not going to go anywhere if you don’t stand out as well. And that can be very tough. And a bit depressing if it doesn’t happen right away.

Just hang in there! Persistence pays off.

Have you made any writing mistakes that seem obvious in retrospect but weren’t at the time?
Even professional writers make typos. I made one just the other week… I wrote “without further adieu” instead of “without further ado.” Ugh. I could have slapped myself silly for that one! Thank goodness I noticed it on time to fix it before it went to print, but I still felt horrible saying, “Oh, um, on that article I just turned in… I made a really stupid error that I should have caught when I proofread it…” Embarrassing.

Is there a particular project you would love to be involved with?
I’d love to do something to help the homeless in my state. Homeless people and homeless cats.

And I’d love to do something for Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles… I was born without my right hip and they built me a new one—free of charge! I owe them a lot. I try to make donations every year, but I’d love to do something more.

How do you deal with your fan base?
I actually do have a few people that write to me! Haha. That’s always been such a surprise to me, but I love it. I love hearing from people.

I basically write back to them, answer any questions they have, and just… do my best to be friendly? I’m not sure what else to say to this one. I’ve had a problem once or twice with people getting a bit too friendly/flirty, but so far I’ve been able to stop them in their tracks before things got out of hand (unless they’re peeping in at me right now and I don’t know it! Yikes!).

For the most part, it’s been just lovely. I hope to hear from even more people with the release of my new book, The Ballad of Allison and Bandit. Some of my dear friends actually started out as pen pals. So you never know—if you write to me, we may end up being friends!

Finish this sentence; my fans would be surprised to know ___ about me.
I’m allergic to soy. Which is in everything here in America—even gum. So, I cook most of the meals I eat myself.

Anything else we should know?
I am absolutely thrilled to be interviewed! I’m usually the one interviewing other people, so it was an absolute joy to be asked a few questions myself. Haha. Thank you so much!

Oh, and please check out my young adult novel, The Ballad of Allison and Bandit. It’s available for FREE as an e-book on my author website at laurentharp.net!

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