Month: December 2014

24 Dec 2014

The Magicians by Lev Grossman


#1 The Magicians series by Lev Grossman

Oh boy. Here’s a review that has been a long time coming. Almost an entire calendar year coming!

I read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians at the tail end of December, just as I was finishing up my end-of-the-year book awards, my Cybils reading, a spate of professional reviews. I was also coming off my second listen-through of Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords. This is all to say: I was busy and doing a lot of required reading…. but despite having read through the series twice in 2014, I was sorely tempted to jump right back into Westeros, just because it was a comfortable place to be.

I resisted the urge for a number of reasons – instead, I was just an angry little reading thing. Nothing seemed fun. Nothing suited. It was a very slumpy time, and while I’ve come to accept the fact that, oh, human life does not always adhere to whatever superhuman standards I set for myself, it still unsettles me, to feel so adrift. Like a habitual, every day runner slowed down by an injury. Rest is good. Necessary. But also distressing.

Some people run marathons. Some people read marathons.

Anyway, I chanced upon The Magicians through my beloved Overdrive app, and my slump dissolved. It was one of those reading experiences that Reader Me (and probably Reader You) lives for – the complete immersion, the instant investment, the can’t-stop-reading feeling.

You know what I’m talking about. It’s better than almost anything.

Quentin Coldwater is a high achieving 17-year-old with a tendency toward angst. Or clinical depression. One of the two. His life’s primary joy is reading fantasy novels, specifically the series Fillory and Further… which is really just an alternate imagining of The Chronicles of Narnia. Quentin’s ennui is lifted temporarily when he is tapped to enroll in a secret college. A college for magicians. The boy who wanted nothing more than to live in a fantasy novel… gets to live in a fantasy novel.

Yes. It’s Harry Potter in college.

But probably not in the ways you think.

Lately, I have been attracted to books that blur genre lines. I’ve been a bit of a genre-nerd for some time now – all of my favorite literary questions are about narrative structure, reader expectations, and canonicity. What books do we get to call “literary” and what books do we not? Why do so many YA books have bad parents? What is the difference between an adult book about teens and a YA book about teens? What is the difference between a book teens like and a book adults like?

Genre-bending books, by their very nature, present these genre questions on a platter, almost requiring that you consider them as you read. The Magicians straddles the line between fantasy and realism. The narrative sticks closely to Quentin’s perspective – the book is missing that charming storytelling narrative distance that fantasy-lovers (like Quentin) adore. The result is a book that feels very different than a fantasy novel (especially a children’s fantasy), which may put off those actually looking for a “Harry Potter in college” reading experience.

What’s left is a very realistic coming of age novel about fantastic events.

As a girl who loves realism and is dipping her toes into fantasy, this combination basically flipped my lid. I was tickled. 100% delighted. I loved how awkward and unfocused and stumbling Quentin was, how he makes friends in an organic but occasionally painful way that took me right back to college. He whines. He pouts. He makes bad choices. He doesn’t quite know what he wants from the world. But really – who does?

But I was also quite taken by… well… all the magic. In the world of The Magicians, bagic isn’t a mystical ability, bestowed upon you at birth. Magic is an academic discipline and practice. A science. An art. Only the best and brightest can hope to practice it well and safely, but even the best and brightest college students are still college students. Quentin and his friends are intoxicated by the prestige and the secrecy and the endless possibilities that their field presents. Magic big and deep and encompassing and so, so powerful – Quentin and his friends learn just how powerful in some seriously painful ways.

This is also the rare fantasy series that doesn’t lose a bit of steam as the trilogy rolls along. I loved The Magicians, but then The Magician King introduces a second narrator whose story I found even more compelling than Quentin’s. The Magician’s Land was a bit slower – not quite as electrifying – but the conclusion was just so, so satisfying to me.

So yes, I’m glad I stopped reading Game of Thrones for a few minutes – long enough to find a new series to love. The surface parallels between the two series are pretty nonexistent. I’m definitely not claiming that fans of GoT will love this, but I found Grossman’s world-building just as thorough and inventive, his characters just as tortured and complex, and the Big Fat Ideas just as free-flying and immersive and wonderful. Like GoT, this series just transports me. Like GoT, I’ll be re-reading The Magicians for a long time.

~ You made it! The end! Merry Christmas! I’m officially On Vacation until January, but I will be back in the New Year! ~

24 Dec 2014

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith


#2 Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

Here’s a book I really, really, really don’t need to tell you about. It needs no introduction. No signal boost. I have no information that you haven’t already gathered, either from reading the book yourself or just from existing on the BookInternet for more than a few minutes in 2014.

I could tell you that the library copy I read had bright yellow pages – on the edges. When our copies arrived at the library, I spotted them in the sorting bins from all the way across our large tech services area. Quite the dramatic entrance, book.

I could also tell you that I really couldn’t put this one down – Andrew Smith works some serious storytelling magic here. Yes, this is a book about some teen boys who accidentally trigger the apocalypse and sic gigantic, man-eating grasshoppers on their sleepy Iowa hometown. And the narration is fairly audacious – Austin not only chronicles the events that lead to this disaster but also a family history, a local history, and the history of the other citizens of Earling. It’s definitely a weird book that takes some big narrative risks – but if you can stomach giant insects and keep up with the somewhat disjointed narration, the pay-offs are big. This book reads a little like a twisted textbook. Austin is writing a history here, and like any history, the telling belies the narrator’s biases, blind-spots, and priorities. It’s tough, at times, to tell what is more unbelievable and horrific: the events that Austin unleashes in Earling or his worldview. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that history, here, is written by a teenage boy. The stories Austin tells aren’t always nuanced or fair or appealing, but as a whole, the book raised some exceptionally interesting questions about who gets to write history, why they are allowed to take this privilege, and to what consequence. What does it mean when men get to tell the stories of all of civilization? At what point – if any – do the history writers stop being horny teenage boys and become authorities?

But for me, that’s all set dressing. Behind the sci-fi-ishness and the voicey-ness and the ambition is just the juiciest realism I’ve read in quite some time. The scenes between Austin and his girlfriend and is best friend are just bubbling with tension as Austin seems to subconsciously test the limits of each relationship. I’m a realism-loving gal. Even giant grasshoppers can’t scare me away from a good teen love story – especially when it’s the kind of love story that reveals just how huge and scary and delicate teen relationships can be. As the apocalypse grows imminent, Smith masterfully raises the stakes for Austin’s relationships, too – by the conclusion, how Austin reconciles his relationships with Shan and Robbie is just as important as how they can save the world. Maybe those two tasks are intimately connected. Maybe everything is.




23 Dec 2014

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward


#3 Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Well, I’m having trouble figuring out how to talk about this book. I came in with few expectations – I haven’t read Salvage the Bones yet, this wasn’t a required read, and it wasn’t a big “buzz book” that I’d heard tons of opinions on. I thought it sounded interesting. I like memoirs. I had a copy at the ready.

I was completely blown away. What Ward does here is so genius: she writes a memoir, but also the life stories of five young men in Ward’s life who died in a five year spa – including her own brother. Ward starts from her most recent loss and moves backwards in time, recalling the details of each young man’s life while also detailing her own. Ward really could have written a memoir about her life alone – the vividness of her childhood memories is impressive and her journey out of her impoverished hometown is compelling enough.

But lives don’t exist in a vacuum. Every human on this planet has a full, rich life that is tethered to other lives. Although Ward isn’t terrible close to all of the young men she writes about, her stories illustrate how connected they were through the bonds of their community. Which are the same kind of bonds that bring together any group of people. If you had a student die at your high school, think about how that rippled through the school and your town. When a kid dies, there is grief. Young deaths rock communities. When systemic racism and class disparities contribute to a higher rate of premature deaths in a certain community, that is just blow after blow. As Ward writes it, the second death of a loved once doesn’t hurt any less than the first. Neither does the fifth.


It’s easy to think about severely impoverished parts of the country as far away from whatever kind of life you – reader who can afford a computer to read this blog post and also maybe buy a book once in awhile – are leading. Books like Ward’s help me to feel tethered to the lives of others I might not otherwise relate to – that might stereotype or dismiss.

I found this memoir powerful, personal, exceptionally readable, and important. Oh goodness, important. After months of watching the horrors of what is happening in Ferguson this summer, I wish I could gift this book to every person in my country. Police violence is just one of the many ways that young, Black men can die, and Ward’s memoir explores just how harrowing and haunting each of those lives can be. Highly, highly recommended.

23 Dec 2014

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh


#4 Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Allow me to direct your attention back to a Best Reads post I wrote way back in 2011 about a little book called Charlotte’s Web. I’m not quite as anti-Western Canon as I used to be in my younger years, probably because A) I’ve liked a lot of the so called “classics” that I read in this latter portion of my life and B) I don’t actually have to read any classics anymore. I am free to design my reading life around my own priorities (which, actually, is probably why I balked at so many reading assignments in my lifetime), so when you read 100 contemporary YA and middle grade novels in a year, a handful of classics doesn’t feel so bad. Also, I can handpick whichever classics suit my fancy! It’s a win-win-win. Life after a few English degrees can be grand.

Anyway. I’m talking about Harriet M. Welsch today. Harriet the m-f-ing spy. She is just such a very, very awesome character – completely individual, independent, and somewhat irascible. She’s a free-wheeling city kid who gets to walk around Manhattan so unsupervised that she manages to spend a significant amount of time hanging out in her neighbor’s dumbwaiter. So awesome.

Since this is my Best Reads list, I am free to talk about how Adult Jessica read this particular work of children’s literature rather than think about any potential child readers. I say this because I am pretty sure I read this book as a child, and unlike many other books I read before my 12th birthday it seemed to have come into my head and left promptly – it left no impression. I’m guessing that I found Harriet a little too aggressive for my liking – back then, I was all about Alice and Margaret – the awkward heroines, the shy ones, the girls as prone to embarrassment as I was. Not to besmirch Alice or Margaret in the least, but I’m pretty sure Harriet would have had some nasty things to say about them in her notebook.

Now, Adult Jessica sees just how uniquely independent, richly developed, and kind of subversive Harriet’s character is. I can also see just how ingeniously Fitzhugh marries this maturity with a sense of conflict in a child’s life. Harriet can get herself into and out of trouble, she can traipse around city streets alone, and she’s smarter than nearly everyone she knows, but at the same time she just can’t handle the idea of change in her life in the way that most 11-year-olds can’t. Like Eleven-year-old Jessica couldn’t. It melted my sappy, grown-up heart a little. I said this yesterday, but I sure am glad books don’t expire, and that great children’s books in particular seem to endure long beyond the average publishing lifespan. I’m glad that they are still around for their intended audience, but for us sappy grown-ups too.


22 Dec 2014

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach


 #5 The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Hey! Back to the countdown! Woohoo!

Thinking about Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding this morning has me yet again questioning what I value in a book; or, more specifically, what I value in a reading experience. There is a difference between the two measures. To me, evaluating a book as a book is all about gathering evidence and building a case. You can point to places in the text that support your opinions or challenge them. It requires clear thinking and an active engagement with one’s own book-biases. Evaluating a reading experience is different. A reading experience is subjective and highly personal. It’s not impossible to evaluate a book based on the reading experience is provides – in fact, this is a large portion of the essential task we librarians like to call Reader’s Advisory – but it definitely flexes different critical muscles. It’s less about the quantifiable and more about story elements, appeal factors, and other less tangible qualities.

When it comes to my personal reading, I tend to unconsciously value certain types of reading experiences. One thing I like is for a book to surprise me. I think this is why I accidentally write a lot of “Well, I thought this book would suck BUUUUTTTT….” kind of reviews. I like broadening my reading tastes and learning about new things, yes – I’m not the kind of reader who likes to read the same kind of book over and over and over. And I especially love it when a novel lures me with great writing and storytelling, showing me the fascinating inner-workings of parts of life I’d have zero interest in otherwise. Like birds. Or mountain climbing. Or baseball.

Yes, this is yet another Best Book Of Many Years Ago, just now arriving on Jessica’s radar. It’s a good things books don’t expire at the end of the year, eh? So what to say about this book that you haven’t heard before? Probably not much. This is a book about baseball, yes, but also a book about what it’s like to live and work in a small college town.  There’s a professor turned college president with a strange relationship with Herman Melville. There’s a freshman baseball recruit with unprecedented skill as a shortstop but who struggles with… you know… the other parts about being human and existing in this world. Other characters flit in between these two protagonists – the president’s wayward daughter, the baseball player’s rarefied roommate, the older guy on the baseball team responsible for summoning team spirit and keeping everyone in line. It’s a well-paced, character-driven novel with a lot to say about goal-setting and goal-achieving, about the perils and joys of pointing your life in one single direction, and about failure.

But yes, baseball. Harbach writes with such a charming, engaging tone that even I started to find baseball interesting. I was surprised and delighted, and ready to read anything else Harbach might deign to write about in the future.


22 Dec 2014

Best New (to me) Authors of 2014

It’s always great to discover a fantastic new author whose books you just adoorrreeee. What’s better: discovering a fantastic old author with a hefty backlist that you can work your way through. Here are some (already popular and reasonably prolific) authors I was delighted to “discover” in 2014.


Meg Wolitzer

The Interestings was possibly *the book* of the summer of 2013. Well, for me, Getting Married was *the book* of the summer of 2013, which is to say I was not particularly interested in muscling through a hefty (adult) book by a new author with a really-really long holds list. I got around to reading it this year and I was really taken by Wolitzer’s easy, intellectual language, and the kinds of stories and characters she portrayed. I listened to The Uncoupling and The Ten Year Nap on audio this year, both of which focused more narrowly on women characters and also had a little bit of a magical realism going on that I didn’t quite expect. I also picked up Wolitzer’s entree to YA – Belzhar – which was even more surreal, but just as good.



Jonathan Tropper

So I really wanted to read This is Where I Leave You but I couldn’t get my hands on it. Even when I actively decided to read it this summer, my hold still did not come in on time. This is where logical people would you know, buy the book. And read it. Illogical people (who illogically pursue public service jobs in major cities and live in illogically small apartments) settle for back list. This illogical person was pretty pleased with her choice. I listened to both on audio, first Everything Changes and then The Book of Joe. They both kind of blur together for me, both books about dudes pushing middle age with Daddy issues, which is probably why neither made any of my more traditional best lists this year, but not every book needs to be a Best Book. Some books are just nice easy reading. Or listening. Perhaps I will avenge This is Where I Leave You 2015? (Or maybe just watch the movie? We’ll see how this next year pans out.)



Ann Patchett

I started with This is the Story of a Happy Marriage: a chance read which I listened to while walking around New York City, and one that I liked quite a lot. Patchett references her novels many times throughout Happy Marriage, and listening to someone say “Bel Canto” and “State of Wonder” so many times sent shivers of shame down my spine. I didn’t have time to read much then, and I didn’t want to spoil either of the two books I’d heard so many praise by accidentally listening to a terrible audio recording. Plus they weren’t available on Overdrive. Patchett’s debut novel was. I listened to it. I liked it. I still didn’t want to listen to Bel Canto or State of Wonder. But Truth and Beauty? Sure. And it was just as wonderful as Happy Marriage – it was a really tough call which work of nonfiction would land on my list this year. I’m still going to save those Big Two for a good, old-fashioned ink on paper reading, but mayhaps Patchett has a few other backlist gems I can get my hands on in the meantime?

21 Dec 2014

Best Book Covers of (the books I read in) 2014

Librarian Confession: I judge books by their covers. All the time. And I have to say that in the past few years I’ve seen a clear trend emerging – book covers are just getting better and better, across the board. I looked through the books I’ve read this year and plucked out the best of the best, in no particular order. Most of these ended up being 2014 titles with a few 2013 and 2015 titles in the mix. I also included publisher info so we can see which houses are hiring the coolest cover designers.  Please gaze upon their beauty (while I keep writing, madly madly, racing until Christmas to finish these posts!!)

Best Covers 1


Best covers 2


20 Dec 2014

The Circle by Dave Eggers


#6. The Circle by Dave Eggers

Longtime readers might recall my fraught relationship with the almighty Dystopia. I used to be in love, I did indeed.  But after the arrival of The Hunger Games,  the world caught onto my secret joy and turned the humble dystopian sub-genre into a sea of romantic trilogies. And that, my friends, is what I don’t like. Romantic trilogies.
Dystopias are actually okay. Sometimes. Consider Dave Eggers’s The Circle to be one of the good ones. It’s not really even a dystopia, necessarily – more like a prelude to a dystopia. Maybe that’s what I’m into these days – speculative fiction that touches on the same ideological issues as the average dystopia. In The Circle, protagonist Mae is a recent college grad tired of being underemployed and ready to start a career. A friend has the hook-up at a big tech company, and Mae starts her first Big Kid job at The Circle – picture Google and Facebook united in an unholy merger. From the first day, Mae is swept up by the cushy job perks and the competitive incentives at The Circle, even while she watches her company make a number of business moves that are… ahh… really creepy. As Mae rises the ranks at The Circle, the more she has invested in the company’s future – even if what her company does is starting to seem completely abhorrent?
Although this book is full of huge, allegorical plot developments and deliberately provocative ideas, Mae’s precarious moral position is the true focal point here. Once The Circle starts to make her uncomfortable, will she quit? Or stick around? This is a familiar dystopian dilemma, but after reading dozens of other dystopias, I am used to this being an easy question to answer. Of *course* the heroine will realize how damaging, unfair, and predatory her society is, and then she’ll start to fight back and the real story will begin. That’s just how these stories go. But Eggers writes Mae’s character in such a way that I really did not even know what Mae was going choose because I really didn’t know that much about Mae at all. Even though I was reading a story from her point of view. At some points in the story, Mae’s character seems flat, nearly a caricature, but then there’s a scene where you start to see the edges of her character developing – maybe it’s a ill-advised romantic tryst with a guy at work, or during a conversation with her lurking ex-boyfriend – and even if you don’t know that much more about Mae, well, you *want* to know more about her. It’s a big tease, yes, but in the best way. I was completely sucked in.
Reading The Circle left me delighted and intrigued, and then horrified for feeling delighted and intrigued. I loved reading a story that had interesting characters to draw me into the story, but wasn’t necessarily about the character. Mae’s not a hero, she doesn’t acquire some life skills that allow her to overthrow The evil Circle once and for all. Her story is more organic and more surprising, and puts an emphasis on the structure she’s overthrowing rather than her own moral character. It reminded me of reading Brave New World, or Feed. I know there are an infinite number of romantic dystopian trilogies out there to read, but really, I think I’m good. There are other breeds of speculative societal disaster fiction out there, and for those? I still feel that spark.
19 Dec 2014

Yes Please by Amy Poehler


#7: Yes Please by Amy Poehler

When it comes to handing out awards for media, Generally Circulating Wisdom says the later a book is released, the more likely it will receive an award. While my experience is just one of many (and as I mentioned yesterday, the only criteria or standards I employ here comes from my gut), I have to say that the Generally Circulating Wisdom does not hold for me. Reviewing my own reading year almost always stirs up some strong feelings for books I read in January or February – or even December. My favorite book of 2012 was one I read on Christmas Day, for goodness sake.

Howeverrrrrrrrrr…. Yes Please was the last book I read before my arbitrary cut-off date this year, so maybe I’m not so unconventional after all. I chose this book on a whim, not because I am a huge fan of Amy Poehler. I mean, I don’t *dislike* Amy Poehler at all – I’m just not an overly enthusiastic fangirl or anything. I was in the mood for something fun and not super dense to listen to, and I must have logged into Overdrive at the exactly right time because this Brand New Super Popular Book (currently  340 holds on the physical book at my library!) was sitting and waiting for me. And wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, it was really, really good.

Amy Poehler strikes just the right chord with her collection of personal essays. She’s self-deprecating without undercutting her buckets of talent and myriad accomplishments, irreverent without sacrificing her straightforward, intimate tone, and really just a great storyteller. The stories she selects from her childhood and teen years are uproarious and personal and give the impression that she still has a deep appreciation for her family life and upbringing, which is something I like read about. Her stories about coming up in comedy – the first taste, the rejections, the Big Break – capture a deep respect for her industry and how happy and lucky she feels, but also how relentlessly heartbreaking it can be to commit to a creative lifestyle. There’s a lot going on in this memoir – if you have the good fortune to listen to the audio version, there are a lot of guest stars, too! – but Poehler’s great narrative voice strings the stories together. Just a few stories in, I was ready to listen to anything Poehler had to say. For the rest of time.

And now excuse me, but I have some television to watch. You see, I’m finally getting around to watching Parks and Rec.



17 Dec 2014

Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour


#8 Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

It’s been a few days since I mentioned this, so I think I will mention it again: this list, these reviews, anything I write on the Internet (anything anyone writes in a list/review/on the Internet) is based solely upon my own whim and whimsy. You, my dear readers, may infer authority based upon my credentials, or past opinions I’ve expressed that you might agree with, but that’s ultimately subjective. I’m not sure why you are reading this blog, actually. I’m guessing its because you like me, or you like to think about the same kinds of things that I like to think about, or that you like your book reccs with a side of everythingelseontheplanet. But if you’re looking for objective, well-reasoned criticism? This is not the right place. This is all just my marginally thought out, occasionally embarrassingly dumb as shit opinion.

This is another one of those set-ups where I try to infer that a book isn’t great before I tell you it’s great. I was a little more abstract about it than usual. I really need to find some new templates for “review” writing, eh? Anyway, that first paragraph is relevant because while reading Nina LaCour’s Everything Leads To You I became more aware than usual of my own reading proclivities and how this affects how I read and form opinions about books. Because I liked it so stinking much that I didn’t even want to figure out if it was a “good book” or not.

This story is about Emi when she’s eighteen years old. It’s the summer before college, and Emi knows what she wants to do with the rest of her life and she has a job doing it. I’d never seen this particular point of view in a Last Summer YA story, and it was refreshing to meet a protagonist who was so clearly… competent. Emi’s growing professional maturity is the crux for many conflicts in this story, actually, since she is still, at the end of the day, a teenager swimming in a sea of adults. She questions her maybe hasty career choices. She makes mistakes and gets reprimanded for it. She’s doing remarkably well for an 18 year old, yes, but she’s still vulnerable.

Oh, did I mention what this job is? It’s production design for movies. Emi lives in Los Angeles, and she spends her days lurking at estate sales to find the perfect couch for her first big scene. It’s the interior design job of my dreams. So many drool-worthy descriptions, which is strange because lengthy description of, well, anything in fiction rarely turns my crank. I make a subconscious exception home decorations, apparently.

Emi is also biracial and dates girls. A chance purchase at an estate sale leads Emi on a bit of a Hollywood mystery that leads her to a girl named Ava, who is beautiful, enchanting, and who needs Emi’s help. It’s a little romantic, it’s a little Hollywood glam, it’s a little mystery.

And I ate it all up. I don’t know what exactly it was about the story that I found so refreshing compared to whatever else I had been reading, but I found it quite refreshing. This is also just a gorgeous thing to hold in your hands – the cover image was downright arresting, and the cover and jacket came in different shades of purple and the fonts! Oh, the fonts!

I was reading a beautiful story about beautiful rooms and holding a beautiful book, and it made me really happy. That’s all I want to tell you about this book.