Month: December 2013

12 Dec 2013

Best Re-reads of 2013

On Writing by Stephen King

Some books you read and read and read again. And by “you” I mean “I.” You probably have a more pragmatic attitude toward reading. Or at least some modicum ofoh… a life. Anyway, some books are meant for re-reading. King’s On Writing is one of them… but I didn’t know that until I re-read it. Now I feel like there may be others, secret favorites I’ve already read but have completely forgotten.

Yes, I realize I am a crazy person. I will have to learn to speed-read soon or else die without having read all the books I want to read, PLUS re-read all the books I want to re-read.

Also, I still wish Stephen King was my uncle.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

There are non-obsessive reasons to re-read a book. One such reason: you are pretty sure you never actually *read* the book you claimed to have read. I have sympathy for you English teachers out there, I do, but is there a more awful way to read a book than assigning two chapters a week? Like a chapter is a discrete thing, separate from the rest of the text? I fell behind in my 11th grade Gatsby reason because I didn’t like the book enough to read ahead of schedule, but I didn’t like the book because I had to read on a schedule. Vicious cycle. Anyway, I actually did enjoy this re-read and am glad I did it. More thoughts here.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

Oh, you are all sick of hearing me talk about this book. But I will never pass up a chance to mention it, so here you go. My official Frankie manifesto can be read here.

The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen

Speaking of books I talk about way too much… still reading Sarah Dessen! For some reason I decided that The Truth About Forever was my least favorite Dessen book, and I actually hadn’t read it since before it came out. I have no idea what crack I was smoking. This is a very good Sarah Dessen book with a very tight plot. I feel ashamed for my baseless judgments about a perfectly decent piece of fiction. Apologies to the universe.

Up next… THE TOP TEN! !! !!!!

11 Dec 2013

Best YA Fiction of 2013

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

I first met Aristotle and Dante way back in February, but I still remember them very clearly. I feel like “stickiness” is something we could talk about when we talk about book awards. This is not exactly a measurable, definable, or professional term, but I might try to measure, define, or professionalize it in the future because I think it marks the difference between a book that slips through the cracks and one that ends up on a list or with a medal. Nina Lindsay talks about this on the inimitable Heavy Medal blog.  But oh, I really digress. What I meant to say is that Saenz does a top notch job of creating two characters who live their own lives on the page, who are memorable without schtick, who are endearing without melodrama. Beyond that, their friendship is rich and complex in a way that I feel is fairly unique to the genre, especially friendships between boys. A definite stand-out in YA contemporary realism of the last few years… even if this is yet another pick from last year’s 2012 picks.

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Is this one book? Or two? Do I care? No. I do like a gigantic, meaty graphic novel once in a while. In fact, my favorite book of 2012 was a gigantic, meaty graphic novel, if you recall. Boxers & Saints is not quite as epic as Habibi, but epic enough to require two books, that is for sure. In two opposing volumes, Yang illustrates the 1899 Boxer Rebellion in China. Little Bao comes of age in a small country village. He watches foreigners come into his village, pushing Christianity and justice and disrupting the social order. When a man comes to his village gathering forces for an uprising, Bao joins the rebellion. Oh, and he also channels some supernatural, mythological forces, because this is a Gene Luen Yang book. On the other side of the rebellion is Four, a girl the same age as Little Bao who is not favored in her family. To rebel against them – and punish herself for not being worthy enough for their love – she does the most evil thing she can think of: she converts to Christianity. And talks to Joan of Arc. Anyway a lot going on here. A lot of great art. A lot of overlapping, compelling, competing themes. Each volume stands alone, I think, but are really meant to be read together – if you’re going to read Boxers, I’d make sure you have Saints on hand! I had to wait three or four days between the two and it was not a pleasant experience.

Lily and Taylor by Elise Moser

Lily and Taylor is a novel about abusive relationships. You might call it a “problem novel,” but I wouldn’t. I could (and probably should) write something quite a bit longer about the kind of contemporary realism we consider problem novels, but I think the negative connotation has to do with how the central “problem” is treated. If the book seems to exist to showcase a particular dysfunction/disease/crime/anything else that might appear in a news story, it may be a problem novel. Many books about abusive relationships fall under this umbrella, but not Lily and Taylor. The book begins with Taylor watching her older sister Tannis’s autopsy; she was Taylor’s primary guardian, but after an extend period of abuse, Tannis’s boyfriend kills her. Taylor moves in with her grandmother, away from her own abusive boyfriend, but eventually, he finds her. This is intense and gritty and definitely has a cautionary message, but Moser approaches Taylor’s life and relationships with such respect – not a hint of condescension. I feel like this is a really strong book that flew under the radar.

The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal

Speaking of gritty… 2013 may have been the year for Jessica and the Disturbing Novel. Reading The Kingdom for the Little Wounds was equal parts awful and engrossing. The story spiraled in and around a castle, but what is a Castle Story really about? It’s about power. That’s what really stuck with me – how Cokal unravels and unpacks the sources of power, for her protagonists Midi and Ava. For the royal women in the castle and the royal men. Does power lie in muscle? In political influence? In lineage, in sex? Is all of that erased if the story ends up written in a different way, by a different person? You can read more rambling about The Kingdom of the Little Wounds here. It is challenging, violent, and complex, but so, so rich.

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

Lucy Beck-Moreau is a piano prodigy raised by a family of arts benefactors. When her grandmother gets sick, she has a personal crisis and decides to quit piano. Of course, her family of arts benefactors does not approve. Family drama comes to a boil. This is all well and good – Zarr’s talent with prose is great enough to weave even this straightforward coming-of-age narrative into something worth reading. However, the stakes are raised significantly when Lucy’s younger brother – now assuming the role of Beck Family Piano Prodigy – gets a new, charismatic piano instructor. And Lucy falls for him. Lucy’s relationship is fraught (obviously! he is a grown man!) but Zarr writes it straight down the line between black and white – he’s an adult, but not that old. Lucy is too young, but she’s grown up in the realm of adults, performing internationally. He’s obviously in the wrong, but she knows what she’s doing. Maybe. The ending is satisfying but not pat. I like all of this. I should really just read all Sara Zarr books always.

Up next… Books I’ve Read More Than Once. Probably Dozens of Times. Otherwise known as Re-reads!

10 Dec 2013

Best Adult Reads of 2013

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

This is probably not the first time you’ve seen Rainbow Rowell’s name on an end-of-year book list. And if you make it through the end of my personal BookBlogMadness this month, it won’t be the last. A warning. Not an apology. Reading Eleanor & Park was an intro, albeit a sort of heart-squeezing painful intro. Fangirl was just candy-coated, self-indulgent bliss reading. Attachments – Rowell’s 2011 debut – is adult fiction, light romantic fare. Not what I usually bother reading when I read adult fic. However, Rowell’s storytelling talent is even more evident here, without all of the This-Is-All-Of-Your-Unique-Anxieties-and-Pain-on-The-Page-Yes-Jessica-Yours stuff all over the place. Attachments is a romance with a male lead. Lincoln is an underachiever, working the IT night shift at a newspaper in 1999. His primary responsibility is administering the building’s new email surveillance software – including reading the flagged emails. Two of the female employees sent recklessly personal correspondences, many of which land in Lincoln’s lap, and he falls in love with one of them. Lincoln is about as endearing and swoon-worthy as any male romantic lead may be, but unlike most romantic heroes, Lincoln’s appeal is not based in broad masculine strokes, in macho posturing, confidence, swagger. (Or millions of dollars, or designer suits, or sexual bravado) Lincoln isn’t alluring because of he withholds his emotions, but because he is so vulnerable and adrift. Rowell flips almost every convention of the romance here… but somehow still ends up writing a satisfying romance. How does that even make sense. And this is why her name is plastered all over every End of Year list ever – the girl’s got chops.

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

If I was to make some sweeping statements about my life, my perspective, and my interests, I would have to say I am probably unusually interested in girlhood. I will skip the self-psychoanalysis as to why this is true, but it is where my interests lie. I picked up Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman on the merits of Internet Book Buzz and because I consider myself to be a feminist. I was surprised to discover, as I read, that Moran frames her essay collection around her own girlhood; how she discovered what womanhood meant to her and the rest of the Western society, for good or for bad. From one angle, this is a memoir that begins with puberty and ends with babies. A reproductive years memoir. Moran then weaves feminist theory, history, and political discussion into each essay, letting the memoir and the feminist ideas play off of each other. It’s one thing to talk about girlhood and feminism in the abstract and another thing to live your life as a girl and a woman. Moran marries the two brilliantly.

Oh, and did I mention Moran is rip-roaringly hilarious? Yeah. Listened to this one on audio and definitely had some of those Laugh Out Loud Into The Abyss In Public moments. Are we all sufficiently iPodded and iPhoned now that I can stop being embarrassed when this happens?

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

So… I realize that my adult fic reading is not exactly thorough. Proportionally, I just haven’t read enough contemporary (or classic…) adult fic to be a truly useful critic. Instead, I read an occasional adult fic novel in between YA/children’s lit reads. Usually I choose those adult reads based on some kind of critical/popular/social thrust. What I’m trying to say is, sometimes my adult End of Year lists are retreads of the previous year’s End of Year Lists. Because that is where I get my reading suggestions. That’s just the way it is, I’m afraid. Don’t come here if you are looking for a Fresh New Adult Read. Or a Fresh New Anything, really. NOW THAT I HAVE THAT OUT OF THE WAY, let me tell you about Jess Walter’s lovely novel Beautiful Ruins. Claire is a cynical script-reading peon in Hollywood, trying to decide if she should quit her dead-end job or her dead-end boyfriend. Pasquale is a buoyant young man who spends his days transforming his family’s decrepit hotel into a tourist destination until a dying starlet checks in and he falls in love. Pasquale lives in a coastal Italian village in 1963. Claire lives in modern-day LA. Walter weaves these disparate stories together effortlessly, characters and events overlapping until the stories come together and become one. There really is a lot to enjoy here – lush settings, lots of humor, even Richard Burton. I personally enjoyed how Walter balances Pasquale’s dramatic, cinematic storyline with the more mundane lives of the younger modern-day characters – was life and love (and film) just more grandiose  in Pasquale’s day? Or are Claire and other characters in her generation just jaded? Such a very thoughtful book, wrapped up in a very pretty, very readable package.

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown

This is not a book that is easy to talk about, but one that is easy to think about. As in, when I am trying to think about other things, Ms. Brown’s simple wisdoms suddenly appear in my brain. Brown is a social worker who specializes in shame research. Now, she is somewhat of a pop-psychology figurehead – I think she does stuff with Oprah – but I’ve been reading her blog since back in the day. Her writing is very easy to read, very personal, and very smart. But what she writes about – shame, vulnerability, and fear – is not easy. It’s stuff that makes my skin crawl, to be honest. Buuuuut, I think Brown would agree with me – that’s why shame is so pervasive and awful and important to unpack. It’s not easy to read about or talk about or acknowledge, but it is probably part of why you are miserable. Whatever your breed of misery may be. Daring Greatly changed the way I look at myself and think about myself and treat myself. If this vague summary hasn’t given you a clear idea of what this book is about, you might forgive me and watch Brown’s TED Talk instead.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

And now for something completely different! And then, not different at all if you were reading 2012’s End of Year Books List. Ahem. However, if you are one of the two people on the planet who have not yet read Where’d You Go, Bernadette, I urge you to. I believe it was Janssen who posed the question awhile back of what exactly was so exceptional about this book. Why everyone went nuts about it. The answer I settled on was simple – in a literary world where books are constantly asking you to watch characters grow, to make moral assessments on characters’ choices, to feel hard feelings… a straight up comedy is a welcome respite. A sharp comedy with a plot that will keep you on your toes is another thing entirely. Bernadette – an angry mom living in a creepy mansion in Seattle – is the focus of the story, but for the most part, the story is told through the eyes of others. Her precocious daughter Bee writes some kind of diary. Emails fly between Bernadette’s software guru husband and his doting secretary. Bee’s school principal and the local PTA moms send missives to one another. Everyone paints a slightly different portrait of Bernadette – she’s a misanthrope who hates Seattle, a reclusive artist, a person in need of mental health care. And then Bernadette disappears, and the chase begins. Every perspective and every chapter shifts your perception of Bernadette and the other odd-balls who populate her world. Basically, it’s an epistolary novel that puts its epistolarity to best effect.

Up next… Books for the Young Adults

09 Dec 2013

Best Reads of 2013

HAPPY END OF 2013!! You guys, this is my first full, calendar year without grad school since 2008. Holy goodness. One whole year without weekly require reading, without a syllabus.

I’ve done a lot of really fun reading this year. I read during storms and rain days and snow days. I read on airplanes and European high-speed rail and the T. I read books entirely on my phone and my Kindle. I reviewed a crap-ton, re-upped for the Cybils, had an audiobook renaissance. It’s been a good year.

Even if I never read that 5th romance.


Beginning tomorrow, allow me to share with you the best of what I’ve read. I consider all books I’ve read in 2013 and a few from the end of last December; not just books published in 2013.  “Best,” of course, is ridiculously subjective, based entirely on my own enjoyment while reading. I mean, I do enjoy good books, well-written, well-crafted books but I also enjoy some complete crap. But I don’t need to tell you this… this is Jessica 101 stuff. I just feel like I need to remind you, you know, in case you’ve started to take me seriously.

Behold, a schedule of events to come:


Tuesday, December 10thBest Adult Reads

Wednesday,  December 11thBest Young Adult Reads

Thursday, December 12thBest Re-reads


Friday, December 13th through Saturday, December 21stTop 10 Best Reads!

10. Ask the Passengers by A. S. King

9. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

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

7. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

6. The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

5. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

4. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

3. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

2. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

1. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

Hold onto your horses, hang onto your hats, verb onto some other nouns and otherwise get excited.

See you tomorrow!

06 Dec 2013

the most wonderful time of the year

Tis the season for the End of Year Book List. In my particular social circles, I am hearing definite grumbles of list-related discontent. Too many lists. Too many books. The same books on every list. Heck, even the listmakers are grumbling, never mind the general vitriol toward lists themselves.

Well, just call me the Buddy the Elf of the End of Year Book List. Y’all are scroogey. Considering the consumer-advertising-madness that is American holiday shopping in general, I’m happy to see the media devote extra attention to books. Canonicity – whether it be a list, an award, or a blurb – will still be there in January for everyone to examine/tear down/kvetch over.

I say this in preparation for my own End of Year book extravaganza. The Canon of Jessica, as they call it. The fun will begin in a few short days! Be patient! Be prepared! Bring your holiday cheer!

Ho, ho, ho!

While you wait, enjoy The Ghosts of Book Lists Past

04 Dec 2013

JFK, the Brontes, and a gaggle of Aviatrices

Hello. Thanksgiving has passed. Remind me to tell you about all the pies I baked and all the pies I ate. Or not, actually, because I might be in a bit of a dessert-related shame spiral. Just might be. All I’ve done for the past four or five days is bake pies, eat pies, think about baking or eating pies, listen to Pentatonix CDs in preparation for the triumphant return of The Sing Off…

and read nonfiction books.

Look, guys. The YA nonfiction committee may not have the glam of YA fiction or Speculative Fiction. It may not have the prestige of the picturebook or the middle grade. But I do not care one lick. First of all, those volunteers are saints. SAINTS. Have you seen how many YA books get nominated?? It’s a huge task. I may whine about Cybils reading, but at the end of the day, it’s manageable. But more importantly, it’s useful. You know who hated history classes from kindergarten all the way through college? Me. Reading a few dozen YA nonfiction titles each year is like a catch-up on cultural moments and events that I diligently ignored during my formal schooling. It makes me feel smarter! Which is, of course, the best reason to join a committee. I am so altruistic you guys.

Anywho, because I was a historical delinquent for the first 25 years of my life, I enjoy uncovering past events that spark my interest in that weird, itchy obsessive kind of way. Enter: The Kennedys. James L. Swanson’s “The President Has Been Shot!” – an adaptation of his adult book on the same topic – focuses on Kennedy’s assassination rather than his entire life. Swanson takes the reader through the event with a careful, well-paced specificity; never boring, and – impressively – never feeling too fabricated. I read through Bill O’Reilly’s Kennedy’s Last Days a few weeks back and was rather disturbed by the amount of “creative” nonfictioning going on – sorry, Bill, I don’t think you can prove that Kennedy buttoned his coat absentmindedly while thinking about Cuba. If you can, then for goodness sake give me a citation! After reading these two titles, though – and reading another book about rich white folks with crazy family problems who summer on Nantucket – I have Kennedy fever. I want to read morrrrrreeeee. Maybe The Patriarch?

Speaking of crazy families, enter The Bronte Sisters. Longtime readers know that in addition to snoring through history class, I ignored my English class reading as well. What was I even doing in high school? I have no idea. Writing collaborative stories with friends that slandered each and every one of our classmates. Singing in choir. Getting A’s while putting in the smallest possible amount of effort. Not reading Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, that’s for sure.

Now I would like to. I have read a few literary biographies for young readers now, and I have to say I really dig the structure. The biographies typically begin with the author’s childhood, focusing on incidents and experiences that would prove relevant to their writing careers and the subjects of their most well-known novels. The biography’s “climax” comes when that story is written or published, followed by a chapter consisting of a plot overview. In whole, the book becomes one part biography, one part biographical/historical literary analysis, one part book marketing.

Whether or not teen readers find this type of book as fascinating as I is a different question altogether. A question I will ignore in the hopes my fellow committee members will pick up my slack.

It would  be incorrect of me to state that Karen Bush Gibson’s Women Aviators: 26 Stories of Pioneer Flights, Daring Missions, and Record-Setting Journeys covers EVERY FEMALE AVIATOR to ever take to the skies. There are more than 26 female aviators in existence. Yes. But man, this book just feels so expansive – in a good way, of course. These are ladies who broke race, class, and gender barriers so they could do bad-ass stuff like fly around the globe and beat speed records and save people’s lives in wartimes. In the midst of all these plane stories, I got the feeling that these ladies might someday fade from the public memory – that Gibson is similarly bad-ass for taking on this literary task.

This title is a great example of one of the primary conflicts I face while trying to judge nonfiction titles is the balance between Information Content and Readability. Creating a readable work of nonfiction – one that attends to language, pace, story, and structure – is likely an extremely difficult task, and a commendable one. Remember Sleepy Jessica in history class? She might have read “The President Has Been Shot” – or, last year’s critical darling and Cybil’s winner  Bomb. However, Sleepy Jessica also needed to write history reports and other assignments. And what about her classmates who have a higher tolerance for informative text? Perhaps even prefer a slew of facts to fiction? When read in one go, the stories in Women Aviators tend to blur together – every lady had a clear memory of their first encounter with planes, had some challenges, overcame them, etc. However, to automatically privilege a more narrative work over an book that serves more of a reference purpose than a smooth, cover-to-cover reading experience would be short-sighted. I am reminded of Vicki Smith’s article from this year’s Heavy Medal – as a committee member, I try to avoid judging a book by my own tastes and instead, let the book teach me how to read it and, then, how to evaluate it.