Two Books

Here are two totally unrelated and hard-to-categorize books that I’ve enjoyed. As you might expect if you visit here often, both include a good bit of humor—of wildly different types.

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Highfire, by Eoin Colfer, is a wild combination of fantasy and over-the-top antic crime fiction. Wyvern, Lord Highfire, possibly the last dragon on Earth, lives under the radar in the Louisiana swamp country, drinking vodka, watching Netflix, training alligators, and generally ignoring the world, until a fifteen-year-old Cajun kid called Squib falls into Vern’s domain after witnessing a crime committed by the crooked constable who has the hots for Squib’s mother. And it just gets crazier from there.

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I picked it up because it sounded funny, and it is, but it’s also quite violent. Colfer is known for his Artemis Fowl fantasy series for young readers, but Highfire is definitely not for kids. It reads more like what might have resulted if Dave Barry or Carl Hiaasen headed north to Louisiana and fell into some parallel universe. I was halfway through the book before I discovered that Colfer is Irish. How he nailed Louisiana (where I lived for several years) so well is a mystery to me.

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Overall I enjoyed Highfire, although it took me a couple of weeks to read. I liked Vern, a fairly humanoid dragon who stands about seven feet tall and dresses in Flashdance tee shirts and cargo shorts. He gradually warms to his young sidekick (rather than incinerating him, his first impulse) and puts him to work running his supplies of vodka and fuel oil up the Bayou. The villain, Regence Hooke, is totally despicable, but a worthy opponent for Vern. Squib, enthusiastic, accident prone, and just the right age to fall in with a dragon, is a charming hero.

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Jennifer Weiner’s latest novel, Big Summer, is set largely in the world of Instagram, Twitter, hashtags and “influencers,” a world that is totally foreign to me. It still is—I want no part of living obsessively on line. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Big Summer immensely, reading most of it on one Sunday.

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Daphne Berg has become a plus-size influencer (well, her gig as a part time nanny actually pays most of the bills) since a video of her standing up to a rude man in a night club went viral. Since then she’s made great strides in accepting herself and encouraging others; in fact she’s just landed a gig as the face and figure of a new clothing line.

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Daphne’s life takes an unexpected turn when her high school frenemy, Drue Cavanaugh, pops back into her life. Daphne resists even seeing Drue—it’s been years, ever since the night of that video. Drue had a hand in setting Daphne up with the guy (“we felt sorry for you”), and Daphne remembers all too clearly how often Drue hurt her, insulted her or dumped her. But Drue is one of the charismatic people, so hard to resist, and when she begs Daphne to be in her high society wedding on Cape Cod, Daphne relents. After all, it will be a great opportunity to post pictures of her sponsors’ clothes and products. And maybe Drue has really changed.

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Big Summer starts out as a women’s fiction, but about halfway through it takes a sharp turn into mystery territory. Daphne finds herself juggling the roles of suspect and investigator. With help from two friends and her parents, she rises to the occasion, uncovering secret after secret about Drue and her apparently perfect life and world. Along the way she realizes that the friend she envied in high school may have had good reason to envy her.

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Daphne Berg is a likable and relatable heroine, and it’s a pleasure to travel with her as she navigates the on line world and the real world, body image, female friendship, and even a romance.

Jennifer Weiner: Hungry Heart

Jennifer Weiner’s Hungry Heart carries the subtitle Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing, which pretty much describes the scope of the book, composed of memoir, essays, and a few articles from Weiner’s career as a journalist. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I picked it up in the writing section at Half Price Books, thanks to the subtitle, but it’s not a writing craft Hungry Heartbook at all. The sections about Weiner’s writing career are interesting, but the tales of her life and family are even better. Weiner has fought her weight all her life, but if you’ve felt like an outsider for any reason, you’ll identify with her. I’ve read several of her novels, and reading this sent me out to pick up a couple more, including her first, Good In Bed, now that I know how she came to write it (and the stunning advance she got for it, something pretty much unheard of in the current publishing market).

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Weiner is, as she says, a “proud and happy writer of popular fiction.” She is also something of a campaigner for gender equality in, say, the New York Times, meaning that women writers, and the fields they dominate, deserve equal treatment by reviewers, and she addresses those topics in the book.

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She also discusses her family: her ill-matched parents, her wandering and sometimes abusive father, her mother who came out as a Lesbian in her fifties, and her quirky siblings. “It is a truth universally acknowledged among writers,” she says, “that an unhappy childhood is the greatest gift a parent can provide.” I’m not sure I’d take that literally—I had a happy childhood with parents who were voracious readers and taught me to love books—but I have to agree that our childhood traumas, large and small, follow us through life. Weiner has built a successful career as a novelist on her own experiences, and it’s fascinating to look behind the pages at her adventures.