Month: December 2013

22 Dec 2013

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

#1: A Game of Thrones (et al.) by George R. R. Martin

There are a number of reasons why I shouldn’t like Game of Thrones. There are also a number of reasons why I shouldn’t be putting Game of Thrones on the top of my personal book pile this year.

But I’m afraid I cannot force myself to entertain any of those reasons at the moment. You see, I am about 200 pages away from finishing Clash of Kings for the second time this year. I also read and re-read A Game of Thrones and Storm of Swords. That is thousands of pages spent in Westeros. Hours and hours of audiobooks. Days of my life, devoted to the pursuit of reading…. epic fantasy.

Oh goodness.

Do I need to give you a summary of A Game of Thrones at this point? Haven’t you all watched the show? Hasn’t every person on the planet read all five books and are therefore in the position to spoil me at any given moment? These books were published in the mid 90s, when I was a child. I didn’t start reading these until the third season of the show was well underway. I am the absolute last person on the boat. I understand.

Just in case you are still unsullied, here’s the best I can do. The time: roughly medieval. The place: Westeros, a continent comprising seven kingdoms, ruled by one king. For centuries, royalty belonged to House Targaryen – a family who once held the throne with dragons, but lately are prone to strategic inbreeding and periodic madness. When a Targaryen king goes completely nuts, the lesser houses rise up in rebellion and seize the throne. Westeros has returned to peace.

But it’s an uneasy peace.

That is all boring politics, I know. I promise, it will get interesting if you read. How can I woo you into reading this book? Well, let me introduce you to the Starks. House Stark controls the Northern parts of Westeros – you know, the woodsy, primitive parts of the continent that nobody ever wants to visit. Consider it the UP of Westeros, if you are from Michigan. After he usurps the crown from King Crazy for his bestie Robert, Ned Stark – a stoic, righteous Northman – returns to his city of Winterfell and has a slew of kids… and one bastard. This Stark family and their crazy kids: they are what A Song of Ice and Fire is all about. At least for me. Robb, Jon, Sansa, Arya, Bran, and Rickon. They are the privileged children of an influential Lord and Lady power couple. Unlike many children in the realm, they do not want for food, comfort, or education. Sure, Lady Stark kind of hates poor bastard Jon Snow’s guts, but he’s got career plans – he’s heading north, to serve as a brother of the Night’s Watch, patrolling the giant ice wall that keeps all sorts of nasty beasts away from Westeros proper. They have a lovely, happy life in Winterfell. They even have giant wolfs for pets! But King Robert calls their Dad down to King’s Landing… and all hell breaks loose.

For everyone.


I’m feeling a bit at a loss of how to talk about Game of Thrones, guys. I imagine this is how lots of people felt when they read Harry Potter for the first time. A pull. A thrill. A quickening. It’s something about the world and the characters and the way everything gets turned on its head every few chapters. You just know you have to see them through, these Starks. You have to be there when the crown is finally secured.

When peace is restored to Westeros.

Or when every single character you’ve ever loved dies. Because that is an actual possibility.

There are reasons not to like this series. Martin’s storytelling is pretty boss, but his writing is not great. His portrayal of women is sometimes gross. His books are thousands of pages long. But there are are also reasons to enjoy it. I talked about some of them in my review of Susan Cokal’s Kingdom of Little Wounds. I talk about others with… oh… all of my friends. Any time I see them. After, of course, I convince them to read the books or watch the show. There are more, for certain, reasons why this particular series is still on the pop cultural radar, almost twenty years after it began. But for me, all that adds up to the unexplainable lure of fantasy. Unexplainable because I am, at 28-years-old, a hopeless noob. I don’t get it. But I feel it. I feel it bad for all these Starks.

I have read A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords twice since June 2013.

It’s a fixation. It’s a problem.

At this point, it’s a lifestyle.


Thank you for enduring this marathon of book posting! If you missed a day, check here!

21 Dec 2013

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

#2: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The year is 2044. Various political, economic, environmental disasters have left America and the rest of the world in a generic dystopian scenario, where the rich get richer and the poor live in towering stacks of mobile homes rife with poverty and crime. Wade Watts – a seventeen-year-old nerd – calls one of these teetering, vertical trailer parks home, but that’s not where life is. Life is on the OASIS – every day, Wade plugs into his computer and becomes Parzival, a svelter, cooler version of himself who attends virtual high school, hangs out with friends in a secret chatroom/bunker, and hunts for the Easter Egg.

The Easter Egg is Wade’s mission. His raison d’etre. The only shred of hope he has to escape his real-world poverty. Oh, and perhaps the only way to save the OASIS itself from an evil corporate takeover. Before he died, eccentric OASIS creator James Halliday planted an Easter Egg somewhere deep in his virtual-universe; his videotaped will reveals that the first to locate it will earn a controlling share in Halliday’s company. The winner will “own” the future of the OASIS. Chasing the Egg has become a global fixation, a nerdy past-time, a professional opportunity for those recruited by predatory tech companies looking to monetize the OASIS as it never has before. Halliday’s clues are vague. Almost nonexistent actually. The only thing Parzival has is an impressive arsenal of Halliday-approved 80s pop culture and video gaming history, a few egg-hunting friends, and despite a thick patina of sarcasm and cynicism, a heart of gold.

Well, I think that’s enough summary to convince you that this book is the province of nerds. I actually find it a bit baffling that this book found as much critical success as it did, but perhaps that’s the thing about being a geeky kid – like Halliday, like Parzival – you have this idea that you are alone in your geekiness. It’s not true, I suppose. Once everyone abandons whatever Game of Cool they are playing in high school and college, the truth comes out – yeah, I played Space Invaders on my DOS PC until my little seven-year-old hands hurt. Played Adventure and Humbug, too. I sneaked into my parents’ room after my bedtime to catch Monty Python reruns that appeared on PBS in the middle of the night. I didn’t return that Gameboy game you lent me, boy I dated. I didn’t break up with you when I should have because I was in the middle of Ocarina of Time on your N64 that you let me borrow, boy I dated.

Yes, Ready Player One is a nerd’s holiday, a nostalgia parade, a justification for all that probably meaningless pop culture that we Gen X/Yers hold in our brains. In the world Ready Player One, the geeks will inherit the earth. Or the OASIS, which is, arguably better than the earth. But beyond all that, Ready Player One is just effing exemplary storytelling. The competition provides strong narrative structure. The “quests” that Parzival and his friends encounter are clever, rollicking, and have high stakes. Cline ramps up the tension periodically as the race to finish Halliday’s puzzle comes closer and closer to an end, but this book reads more like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory than anything else – the reader knows the protagonist is in the right, and it’s clear who deserves to come out on top. The fun isn’t the will they win, but how will they win, and at what price.

(And how cool the next level will be)

Ready Player One was 100% the most fun I’ve had reading all year. Not only did Cline send me into multiple fits of geeky, nostalgic delight, he wrote a book that reads like a game. Or, more accurately, like you are hanging out with your best geeky friend. You watch each other play, gasping when they miss a jump, screaming out suggestions, your fingers twitching over invisible thumb-sticks while you try just one more time to beat that impossible boss.

Genius, man. Genius.

Now excuse me… I have a variety of semi-legal game emulator software programs to download.

20 Dec 2013

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

#3: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I thought long and hard about how to place these last three books, my favorite three reads of the crazy year that was 2013. If I could rank them all equally, I would. I mean, I guess technically I *could* rank them all equally. I run this rodeo. I can do what I want. But you know. I can’t. Because I can’t. You understand.

Fangirl was the one book I read all year that inspired something primal in me. Like a really elongated yesssssssssssss. That’s what Fangirl made my soul say. It’s realistic fiction. It’s older YA. It’s all anxiety and introversion and self-doubt. It’s a swoony love story. It’s on everyone else’s end-of-the-year lists. It’s nerd heaven.

Loved it so much, I bought it in hardback AND as an eBook. This is living large for me, guys. Behold, my not-so-recent review of my third favorite book of the year.



Introverted Cath isn’t the most well-adjusted, outgoing teen in Nebraska, but she knows where she stands. With her mother gone and her father a little flighty, Cath keeps an eye on things at home. Her twin sister Wren is her best friend. And the rest of her life and livelihood is Simon Snow – specifically, her life is Carry On, Simon the epic, episodic work of fan fiction Cath writes for an audience of thousands of Simon fans around the world.

College upsets everything. Cath worries about her father and his empty nest. Wren has a new roommate and a new weekend partying habit, while Cath’s roommate is older and eyes Cath’s Simon Snow posters suspiciously. Cath’s creative writing class isn’t what she hoped it would be, and she either has time for schoolwork or updating Carry On, Simon, but not both. It’s awful. But she has to deal with it. Or drop out. Or fall in love. Or not.

There are a lot of conversations you could have about Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl.

– You could talk about whether or not Fangirl is YA, or whether or not any book set in college could be considered YA.

– You could talk about if a character’s Internet-Life can be adequately and richly portrayed with prose, and whether or not Rowell did Cath’s fandom any justice.

– Rowell includes excerpts from Cath’s fan fiction as well as from Simon books themselves – you could talk about fiction within fiction… or more accurately, fiction-based-on-other-fiction all within fiction. Yikes.

– You could talk about “slice of life” fiction. Is it boring? Is it realistic? Is it an artistic form or a mark of authorial laziness? I

– If you are an introverted English major who somehow survived college feeling a little beaten and bruised – come on, I know most of you probably are – then you could talk about how Rowell must have been spying on you in your dorm room, subsisting on the cereal bars stashed in your dresser drawers rather than think of stepping into the school cafeteria.

I could write a blog post on any of those topics, but I believe I would need an entire post for each question. Maybe more. I know this blog has taken some strange turns over the years, but I’m not about to start a Rainbow Rowell Literary Analysis Only blog. Or, A Dramatic Retelling of My College Experience blog for that matter.

However, I would like to propose a theory to you, my few and amazing readers: the more discussion a book raises, the better the book. The more questions you have, the better the book. The more different angles you can come at a book, the better the book.

Obviously, this is not a hard and fast rule, but think about it next time you finish a book. Does the ending wrap itself up in a bow? Can you see where the plot is leading you at every turn? Do you understand every narrative decision the author made? Do you agree with every narrative decision the author made?

It’s nice to read a tidy book, but a tidy book is usually a safe book. Rowell’s narration is pitch perfect and yes, there is a fairly traditional romance plot, but I would argue that this is not a safe book. It’s a book you can critique. A book you can dissect. It’s a book you can love, but makes you think about why you love it.

I should also mention: I loved it. Loved it hard. Didn’t want it to end. It’s been years since I’ve added an author to my Must Read List, but welcome aboard, Ms. Rowell.

19 Dec 2013

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman


#4: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

So. Dragons.

Not a dragon person. So, so not a dragon person. Unless the dragons in question are those three little handheld dragons from the Goblet of Fire movie, of course; prior to 2013, those little babies were the only dragons I’d ever had a passing affection toward.

Not a dragon person, but oh my, did Seraphina tickle me. It’s not too dragon-y. It’s also about music… and royal intrigue… and special mental powers. This book had me gasping at a sequel pretty much as soon as I put it down, and out of all the books I read in 2013 has me most looking forward to a good, old-fashioned re-read.

What follows is my original review, posted in the early months of the year.


As I think more about The Books That People Really Love, I keep thinking about fantasy. [Insert a few witty sentences about how I don’t really read fantasy here]. Not liking fantasy never felt like a strange thing until, of all places, grad school. My program was a haven for lovers of Tamora Pearce, Madeleine L’Engle, Lloyd Alexander, Donna Jo Napoli – of Twilight, even, and of course, Harry Potter.

When I have that conversation about favorite books with my classmates, the titles they hold onto are those that reliably took them from here to another world.

Reading Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina, I started to get it. The cover was the first step – you don’t see line art on YA books much anymore, even fantasies, much less landscapes. This is a book that has a place, a place you can see on the cover, that you will visit when you read.

This was not a book that I read easily. The prose is dense, sentences that you can tell were “crafted” and not just written. The plot is political and interpersonal, and with a large cast of characters with eccentric names, it was sometimes hard to follow. There are stories going on inside of an aristocracy, outside of an aristocracy, and an entire plotline that exists inside of Seraphina’s head – until maybe it doesn’t.

But the characters, especially Seraphina, were compelling, making me want to learn more about this strange place, about their lifestyles and politics. In Goredd, dragons and humans coexist, but only due to a tentative treaty that many believe should be revoked. Dragons are the arguably superior beings, gifted with more intellect, logic, and special skills, including the ability to take human form. Humans allow some dragons to live among them, but only if they wear a bell around their neck or contribute to society in some meaningful way. The political plots focus on these tensions between dragon and human, which have very obvious parallels to race and cultural relations in our world today; Hartman implies these connections with an expert’s subtle hand.

The personal plots focus on Seraphina, a half-dragon, half-human living as a human in a world where neither dragon nor human even acknowledge the biological possibility of such miscegenation. She’s undercover, but her combination of dragon and human skills make her a superb musician, so she gets a job in the castle and slowly gets involved with dragon-human politics.

Every time I picked up the book, I would read a few pages and feel a little internal sigh, a little “urgh,” a little “what’s going on in the Internet right now?”

But if I read for a minute or two more, then I was just in the book. Not really aware of the reading process, necessarily, not flipping pages because you’re impatient for a plot’s ending, not reading because the reading’s easy.

I just went somewhere else. And that, I think, is something you don’t easily forget.

18 Dec 2013

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

#5: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

I’ve talked a bit about readability. I’ve talked a bit about Your Own Personal Canon. Let me tell you about a new bit of personal jargon I’ve caught myself using from time to time: Required Reading for the Human Condition.

Tiny Beautiful Things is the book that inspired the phrase. It’s a collection of advice columns, but really a collection of human stories- the black, the white, and all the grays. The writers come to Sugar weak, plaintive, and laid bare. Sugar answers with humility, clarity, and deep, deep hope. I think it’s difficult to imagine how all of this happens in the context of an advice column, but this is by far one of the most arresting books I’ve read in my life. As a writer, as a public servant, as a human, I desire to better understand people and their stories. Strayed’s writing cuts right to the core of it all –  the way we are, the way we live, the way we walk around this planet with each other. It’s startling and affecting and so valuable.

Like I said, Required Reading for the Human Condition. Here’s my original review from January of this year.


If you are a human, you should probably read this book.

Once upon a time, some writer-types started a website called The Rumpus. Steve Almond wrote the advice column, Dear Sugar, but handed over the duties to some new blood. That new blood was Cheryl Strayed – you might remember the name, maybe Oprah introduced you last year – and she wrote an advice column like none you’ve ever read before. She wrote the advice column that all other advice columns wish they were, and in turn, her readers came to Sugar with the kinds of problems that are so tricky, so painful, so innately human. How to move on from the death of a loved one, how to decide to stay with your spouse, whether or not to cut of a destructive parent or sibling, how to survive this human condition. Problems we all have but assume there are no answers for, especially answers to be found in an online advice column.

But there are answers to these questions, as most of you probably know, found in music, film, poetry, religion, literature. Strayed’s Sugar takes the last option, weaving advice throughout personal stories with carefully chosen words, either tender or firm, but always artful, never patronizing, and the result is something truly special. It’s a manual on how to survive this human existence, one poor soul’s troubles at at time.

I want to buy a copy for everyone I love who has ever suffered, and bookmark special chapters for them. Everyone. Man, woman, parent, sibling, friend, acquaintance, coworker… Heck, I would like to buy myself a copy and bookmark special chapters for Future Jessica, in case she needs them.

I hope you don’t read this as an oversell – this is not a flashy book, a stay-up-all-night, change your life kind of book. If you are a person who finds life mostly enjoyable, you might not care for it. For the rest of us: required reading for treating the human condition.


18 Dec 2013

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

#6: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

Well, since I already opened the door into weird, barely interesting meta-criticism back when I was talking about my favorite YA books, allow me a few words on readability. For me, as a reader, readability is about language – straightforward, not-too-much prose. The language can be lyrical, it can be noticeably crafted, it can be playful, but it has to be a relatively easy flow from eyeball to brain. Readability is also about story and characters. A story that moves, that surprises. Characters who are intriguing, who behave differently than I expected them to, who get into mischief.

This is all, of course, subjective. Maybe you prefer your language thick and descriptive, your stories comforting in their predictability, or whatever. I like those books too, sometimes. However, I do favor my particular blend of readability, especially when it comes time to decide my favorite reads for the year. Most of my top ten are books that I would consider un-put-downable.

That is how I described Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins when I read it way back in April. I was reading other stuff. I checked out The Middlesteins from the library with interest but without much intent. I picked it up off my shelf on a whim – something to read while I had an after work snack, I think.  But just a few chapters in, I felt that pull, that tug, that You Are Just Going to Sit on the Couch and Read feeling. A great feeling. A special feeling.

The Middlesteins is a multi-generational family saga. Matriarch Edie is newly retired after her employer offers an early pension. Scenes from Edie’s youth reveal she was never a slender child – to Edie’s immigrant parents, food was emotional currency. But after her retirement – and after her husband, Richard, leaves her abruptly – Edie is getting larger and larger. The Middlestein children swoop into help, but naturally, their own problems and issues arise. Benny has potentially troubled children and a perfectionist housewife at home. Robin is a nostalgic, unlucky-in-love type staring down her thirties. Their mother is obese, sick, and strangely unrepentant. Their father is a heartless bastard, leaving his kids to tend to their mother while he dates around. Edie has secrets. Richard has secrets. Robin and Benny and even Benny’s pampered suburban children have secrets. Each character is sympathetic, but also maybe slightly evil toward one another, and much of the drama lies in waiting for betrayals – large or small – to unfold.

The Middlesteins hide from each other, hurt each other, and try to figure out how to stay a family. The narration moves from character to character and from past to present; the story feels like a sprawling, spiraling family drama, each Middlestein’s story folding into another, deepening the family and hereditary landscape. But the book is only 300 pages long – Attenberg’s sharp language and storytelling skills do a lot with just a little.

In conclusion, Attenberg’s The Middlesteins is a fine, short, family drama that satisfies all of my criteria for readability – it is exactly the kind of book I like to read when I read adult contemporary fic. Thus concludes this Five Paragraph Book Review.


16 Dec 2013

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

#7: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Well, this is going to be an obnoxious review. I feel like I can’t say much about Lockhart’s hotly anticipated latest because it doesn’t come out until May. MAY!! We got a foot of snow this weekend – May is not a thing. I can’t even say for sure that May will happen. It is so far away, I feel squicky talking about this book now…. but the other option was waiting until 2014 to read it, and, well, that was just not going to happen. I couldn’t even wait a day. I actually couldn’t even wait until I got off the treadmill. Apparently, I can read an ebook off of my phone whilst running 5.6 mph!

The other reason I can’t say much about We Were Liars is because spoilers. This is a classic mystery plot – clues are revealed, interpreted, misinterpreted. Character aren’t what they seem. The plot is so carefully constructed, it’s difficult to decide what to say about the book that won’t dismantle the enjoyment of watching the characters and events fall into place. Also, We Were Liars absolutely begs a re-read, which I haven’t had time to do. I’m not even sure I really understand how the plot comes together, then, without this second read. I feel unqualified to talk about it.

I told you this review was going to be obnoxious.

Alright, here’s an attempt to tell you what this book is about. Cadence’s parents are divorced, and she lives with her mom in New England. Every year, Cadence and her mother and her aunts and grandparents all summer together on their family’s private island off the coast of Massachusetts. There are four homes on the island – one for each sister, one for the grandparents. On the island, the grown-ups sometimes squabble, sometimes backbite, and always drink… but for Cadence, summer means cousins. Mirren and Johnny and Cadence are inseparable. One summer, Gat comes to the island as a guest, and from then on the foursome become The Liars. The best part about summer, or maybe the best part about everything.

One summer, something happens on the island – something violent – and Cadence has to leave. Cadence can’t remember what happened to her – can’t remember much of anything from that summer – and now she has migraines so bad she has to repeat a year of high school. The next summer, her parents insist she go to Europe instead of the island. The summer after that, Cadence returns, but something’s different. Something’s changed. If only she could remember what happened, then maybe Cadence could figure out how to fix it.

The language and the story construction and the gasping surprises. These are reasons to read this book. Family secrets. Amnesia. Addiction. What you can get away with – what you can’t. Not-so-rich kids from rich families, learning about the dirty undersides of living as part of “the ruling class.” These are other reasons to read this book. I’m pretty confident that in May, y’all will find a good reason to pick this one up. Don’t worry, I’ll remind you.





16 Dec 2013

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

#8: Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

I decided to read Please Ignore Vera Dietz this year because I needed an audiobook. Well, I guess I didn’t need an audiobook, but I have this thing called An Addictive Personality. Fall of 2013 was all about Overdrive and whatever books Overdrive made available to me on a particular day. One day, it was Please Ignore Vera Dietz.

Vera is an only child living with her single dad. Her best friend and next door neighbor, Charlie, just died, but they hadn’t been friends for awhile. She was mad at him. He was mad at her. They were avoiding each other and then Charlie did something unspeakable awful and Vera wrote him off and now he’s dead. She is grieving, she is guilty, she is still mad, she is just trying to get by. But sometimes she sees Charlie – lots of Charlies, actually – and they say he didn’t do the thing she thinks he did. That Vera needs to clear his name.

Understandably, Vera doesn’t exactly know how to process all this. So she gets angry. She slacks off. She gets drunk.

Here’s an unsupported hypothesis about YA lit for you – YA realism, when done well, defies all attempts to make it sound interesting. Challenges you, the reader, to describe what happened in the book. Things happen to Vera, yes. She makes pizzas at work. She has tense conversations with her traditional father. She tries to date. But at the end of this novel, I wasn’t marveling over what just happened. I was marveling over how it happened. Arguably, Vera’s story is about her grief – how it manifests, how she can or can’t soothe it, what can be healed and what wounds are there for good. But Vera isn’t walking around, trying to assuage herself, trying to figure out what it all means. All of the meaning is simmering under the surface of the text, bubbling over into Vera’s thoughts and actions. It’s all show, no tell, and it’s brilliantly done.

So I can’t really tell you what happened to Vera – because the book defies summary, because I am crummy at summary, because this could get spoiler-y – but I sure can tell you what I loved. Vera’s mouthy candor. Her visceral pain. How she doesn’t stifle an emotion or apologize. But then, midway through the book, I realized that at school and with her peers, Vera is none of that. “Please ignore Vera Dietz,” is a mantra, to defend herself and her family and even Charlie from judgment. I loved how Charlie is the least attractive love interest of YA lit. He can’t afford nice clothes. He doesn’t like to wash his hair. He’s an outcast, just like Vera, and she knows she shouldn’t even be friends with him but he’s Charlie. I loved the multiple perspectives, how King just ignores every rule about what a YA book should be and goes for it. YA books shouldn’t include first person narration from adults… nay, parents? Too bad. Here’s a chapter narrated by an inanimate object, for ya too. Love love loved Vera’s dad’s chapters, where Vera’s idea of her father as stoic, unwavering, cold, and unfair is completely upended. In the hands of a lesser writer, chapters from a parent’s perspective may be distancing, but King makes it work. Makes it work so well, actually, that Vera’s relationship with her dad stands out to me as one of the most interesting, complex, and touching parent-child relationships in YA. Really, they just slayed me.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz wasn’t the kind of read that had me looking for excuses to plug into my headphones, but once the book ended, I just left with a “that was a damn good book” kind of vibe. Like I should have been taking notes, because this is how YA realism is done.



14 Dec 2013

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

#9: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Sometimes a book is all over the media, the awards, the end-of-year lists, and I just can’t muster up any cynicism. Because the book is just so damn good. It might not be the most complex or the most literary. The grittiest, the riskiest, or the most surprising. It might not be for you, but boy was it for me. Rowell does what I want all YA books to do – to introduce me to characters I wish I knew in the real world, make me care about them, and treat their lives with attention and respect. Especially respect for their capacity for loving relationships.  I have a tender spot in my heart for teenage romance, especially romance that eschews the fairytale for the hard and the bittersweet. Eleanor & Park has hard and bittersweet in spades, and every literary decision shows her respect for her characters. Super deserving of all of its accolades, in my opinion, and my #9 read of the year.

Here is my original review, published after racing through my eGalley back in February.


Eleanor and Park are students at the same high school. Park is a Korean-American living in a white-bread Nebraska town, but he’s known everyone in the neighborhood and school forever so he’s got his own social agenda, even if he doesn’t quite fit in. Eleanor, on the other hand, is the new girl, and nothing about her fits in – her body, her crazy red hair, her thrift-store-because-that’s-all-she-can-afford wardrobe, how she shares a room with her four siblings and how her mom let her new husband kick Eleanor out of the house for a year. She’s “Fat Slut.” She’s “Big Red.” She’s the girl whose street clothes get flushed in the toilet during gym class, who couldn’t blend in no matter how hard she tries. Home sucks. School sucks. The only tolerable portion of the day is when she reads comic books over Park’s shoulder when they sit together on the bus.

And then they fall in love.

Oh, they fall in love.

I don’t even want to make this Romance #6 because it’s so different than the kind of romance I was going for when picking the first five. No offense to the contemporary light YA romance, but all five of the selected titles adhere to a rough pattern, a bit of a formula. Reader meets girl. Girl has problems. Girl meets boy. Problems complicate boy. Girl solves problems. Girl gets boy. It’s a formula I like, but it could not be further from Eleanor & Park. Eleanor is a girl with problems, but they are problems too big for any teenager to “solve” on her own, with or without the help of a boy. Park wants to help, but Eleanor won’t let him all the way in, and even when she does he can’t help her either.

They fall in love anyway.

And that it why I liked this book so damn much – because when you are a teenager and you fall in love, it’s rarely easy. You feel victimized by adults with power, by your peers. You can’t say what you want, what you are feeling; communication breaks down suddenly and with consequence. You know in your heart of hearts that you aren’t going to be together forever, even if you want to, really really badly.

But you fall in love anyway.

This book reminded me much of Pete Hautman’s The Big Crunch, but with a closer, more intimate narrative. Like Wes and June, Eleanor and Park get alternating chapters, and while Eleanor is the true protagonist, I believe, it was all about Park for me. He was just the sweetest boy trying to fit in and stand out, to follow the crowd and follow his heart, to find out what it means to him to be a man.

I didn’t cry, I didn’t swoon, I didn’t rush through the last pages in anticipation that The Boy and The Girl would finally end up together. It’s not that kind of romance.

But I loved it anyway.

13 Dec 2013

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King

#10: Ask the Passengers by A. S. King

Hi! Hello! The big show has begun! My 10th favorite read of 2013 is A. S. King’s Ask the Passengers. For me, 2013 was a good year for discovering new authors. I especially like discovering new authors who aren’t really new. Who have a few books under their belts. I know, I know. I’m a librarian, a blogger, blah-blah-blah. It’s important to support quality debut authors so they can get the street cred/sales they need to become established authors. But if I’m being honest and selfish, I’d rather read a great book and have that blissful realization that there’s moreeeeee. Please also see my television watching habits.

I read Ask the Passengers way, way back in the early months of the year and it still stands out to me as one of the cleanest, most enjoyable realistic fiction reads of the year. Maybe of the last few years. This won’t be the last you see of King around this blog, and I’m glad there are still a few King books left to enjoy. On that one, far off day when I actually have a few moments to read whatever I want. January 10th. I think that’s the day. Reality Boy is sitting on my shelf.

What follows is my original review, originally published in March.


Astrid Jones is a lot of things. She is a senior in high school. She is a New Yorker whose parents moved her to Small Town Hell. She is the daughter less favored by a perfectionist mother.  She is no longer interested in learning trigonometry, but philosophy lights up something inside of her. She is the best friend to the Homecoming King and Queen, and the only one who knows they are both gay. She is a secret keeper, a sender of love into the universe, and oh, she might be gay.

Maybe. But why lean into a label if she’s not sure? Why not spare herself the consequences of coming out, when labels are bullshit anyway?

I read a lot of very positive reviews for A.S. King’s Ask the Passengers, but sometimes I feel like reviews hone in on one or two choice aspects of a book and hang the rest of the reading experience on those. This was a Coming Out Story, the reviews said. This is a story with King’s trademark Magical Realism.

I devoured this book in two day’s time, and I found it to be so much more than Coming Out and Magical Realism. The story does center on Astrid as she comes to terms with her other-ness in a very insular small town community – getting up the guts to live as herself in the world instead of keeping her identity precious and hidden. But the way King writes Astrid, it seems like sexuality is secondary to Astrid-as-a-Whole; it’s not just her weekly make-out sessions with the hot field hockey player she’s keeping to herself, it’s secrets about her friends and her family, about what she thinks about her mother and sister, her dreams and wishes. Similarly, the Magical Realism isn’t terribly magical. When Astrid sends her love up to airplane passengers overhead, and the narrative follows that love, giving you a glimpse of the life of a plane passenger, I didn’t read that as “magic” – I read it as part of that inner life that Astrid keeps to herself, that inner life that makes Astrid such a dynamic character.

Despite all that, I think you can tell that I liked this book a great deal. I liked it for being sharp and fast to read. I liked how the cast of characters around Astrid’s life in her small town were so richly developed, each one interesting, not a throw-away in sight. I liked how King made the We-Look-Perfect-But-Are-Deeply-Troubled Family trope feel entirely fresh. I liked how Astrid and her girlfriend have mismatched ideas about the pace of their sexual interactions, and instead of submitting Astrid pushes back; instead of fighting or breaking up, they have a rational conversation about it.

This one should have got a little more ALA love this year. Shame, shame. You should read it anyway.