All posts in: book reviews

31 Dec 2018

best reads of 2018

Tomorrow is 2019! Happy New Year’s Eve! While I have the opposite of a wild night planned, I think back to how I rang in 2018 a year ago… and I remembered that I went to bed at 9pm in my parents’ house with my 18-month-old who wouldn’t stop climbing out of his crib. At some point I ended up on the floor. I think we also had to wake up for a stupidly early flight. So this year really can’t be worse than that… especially since I am finishing! And! Posting! The Best Books I Read in 2018! Even though I have no time or energy to read anything of enough literary quality to end up on a Best of the Year post, it’s still a wonderful time of year.

Longtime readers (do  I even have another kind of reader at this point? Hi Mom! Hi Dad!) know the drill: these are my favorite reads of the year, regardless of audience, publication date, or literary merit. They are listed in order. I really did love them all – while most of the 132 books I read this year were somewhat forgettable, I really do have a tough time narrowing down the top 25 or so. Please add them to your 2019 To-Read lists. Please forgive me for incomplete and unoriginal sentences below. I have a 5 week old baby and a 2.5 year old in my house and we have all been here together for 10 consecutive days and I guess we all have to live together forever now. Good thing everyone likes to read.


10. My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul

Pamela Paul is the editor of the New York Times Book Review. Before that, she was a fairly normal young woman with one of those useless English degrees and a lifelong love of reading. As a fellow reader who considers charting and tracking her own reading life to be a worthwhile hobby, I was entranced by Paul’s essay about her Book of Books – a notebook where she documented her reading life starting when she was a teen. This memoir follows her fairly normal young adult and adulthood, with attention paid to the books and reading experiences that shaped her. Nothing too flashy here, but I found her life story to be so quietly engaging that I couldn’t put it down.


9. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Did you already read this book, when e.v.e.r.y.b.o.d.y. was reading it, in 2017? Well, if you didn’t, I can tell you it was still a very good read in 2018, and will probably be a good read in 2019, too. And there’s good news! I bet your library’s holds list have finally died down! Set in an orderly Ohio suburb, this story is split between three very different families – the Richardsons, who have deep roots in the community but also four teenagers who are up to all sorts of behaviors their proper mother doesn’t want to know about; the Warrens, a single mother and teen daughter who rent a condo from the Richardson; a single, immigrant mother who must work full time to support herself and her infant daughter, and in the process has her daughter taken into state custody; and Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist with a murky past – and her teenaged daughter, who unintentionally weave between the stable suburban families. I like domestic literary fiction, and I like adult books starring teenagers, so I agree with the masses – a must read of whatever year it happens to be when you read this!



8. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

I heard about this book for years – so many rave reviews, plenty from people whose reading tastes I admire – but I never thought I’d want to read it. A book about people behaving badly on the Internet? I actually spend a decent amount of my time and energy trying to *avoid* people behaving badly on the Internet, so no thanks. Then I read Leila Sales’s If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say for a pro book review; it’s a realistic YA book about a girl who behaves badly on the Internet and the backlash that ensues, very clearly influenced by Ronson’s book , so I thought I might be a pro-pro reviewer and take a chance on So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (read: Jessica wanted to procrastinate, so she found a somewhat acceptable avenue to avoid doing her work!) I was not any more interested in the subject than I ever have been, but DAMN Jon Ronson! I was not only sucked in, but entirely fascinated, and I give all the credit to Ronson’s writing: he’s a talented storyteller who also takes some unexpected narrative risks. So add my rave review to the mix, and I’ll add Ronson to my Definitely Check Out Their Next Book, No Matter What It’s About list.


7. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

In August, when I decided to play a little 2018 YA/MG catch up, The Poet X was my first choice. Why? Because it was short! And written in verse, so it reads even shorter! It also won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for fiction, so I would get (imaginary, meaningless) Literary Merit points. But external factors aside, I was so pleased with this book. Acevedo portrayed her main character, Xiomara, as a complex, sympathetic teen with a unique set of social challenges – she’s trying hard to balance her family’s staunch religiosity with her earnest desires for independence: to date, maybe have sex, write and perform slam poetry, to challenge some aspects of Catholicism. This felt like the best of old-school YA realism – a personal coming of age story driven by character and not melodrama – but with a modern perspective on race, class, and gender.


6. The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis

Another of my earnest Catch Up On The Best of 2018 YA/MG reads makes the list! Isn’t it great when you agree with the critics? I knew nothing about the plot or setting when I started reading, so it did take me a little time to get settled into the story, but the narrator’s voice drew me in right away. Little Charlie – the oversized twelve-year-old son of poor sharecroppers – starts the book extremely down on his luck: he witnesses his father dying of a freak accident, then finds out his father owes money to a nearby plantation owner; he and his mother are grieving and wondering how they will keep up with their work and make money when a goon arrives to collect on his father’s debt. The goon (“Cap’n”) convinces Charlie to join him on a journey to collect on someone else’s debt as a payment for his own, and a cross-country, international, consciousness-raising adventure ensues. I thought this was a perfectly middle-grade sized read – just meaty enough for a 4th-6th grader but without anything extra – and oh gosh, Little Charlie is just one of those endearingly naive but earnest narrators that you (aka, adult readers, probably; pregnant/hormonal readers, definitely) just want to hug.


5. Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

A third 2018 YA/MG book – another (mostly) verse novel, interestingly enough. Also, another historical: this time, way more historical, going back to the 1600s in Italy, and based on actual people and actual events! The protagonist, Artemesia Gentileschi, is a seventeen-year-old living in Rome with her widower artist father. Out of financial necessity, her father trained her to paint, and at some point she became so talented he was better off handing his commissions to her – while signing his own name to them, of course. Artemesia is pissed off about this. She desperately wants to make her own name as an artist, and is passionate about painting women with the sensitivity and realism that the male artists of her time just can’t handle. Then, she comes across a successful artist who wants to tutor her – she’s elated… until her tutor’s untoward behavior threatens to destroy her and her family. Is this a work of relatively heavy-handed proto-feminist comeuppance? Yeah, probably. But Artemesia’s struggle to be honored for her own talents – and believed against the words of a more powerful man – reads like a story that could be making today’s headlines. This is a fairly devastating but extremely powerful read.


4. The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life if Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in the Store by Cait Flanders

Finding this book felt like a bit of divine intervention: I chanced upon a personal finance blog that, upon investigation, didn’t really seem like a personal finance blog. Then I forgot the URL, remembering only that it was the author’s name dot com. I remembered it (, RIP) and was like “wow, this is better than a personal finance blog…” and then a few weeks later I heard about this book and put all of these connections together. I’m a bit of a personal finance hobbyist, but I do find many blogs and books on the subject to be repetitive, polemic, and fixated on one-size-fits all advice. How we deal with money is… well.. personal; Flanders’s memoir is the first personal finance book I’ve read that fully embraces that intersection. The premise is a little stunt-memoir-y – Flanders writes about her “year of no spending,” – but since she’s writing about her efforts to not do something, what she ends up writing about is the life she lives instead – and what perspective that experience brings to the life she lived before. This was a quietly endearing – and inspiring – read for me this year.


3. Circe by Madeline Miller

Unsurprising confession: everything I know about mythology I learned from video games and the episodes of Wishbone that retold The Odyssey and the story of Hercules. But even though I could only barely keep track of which god was related to which demigod, I was somehow totally into Madeline Miller’s latest work of… mythological fiction? I missed growing up in the Percy Jackson crazy by a few years (*cough* more like ten years *cough*), so I’m a little out of the loop; also, I don’t know exactly what aspects of this story Miller gathered from mythology and what is her own making. But previous mythological knowledge proved unnecessary, for me: I was taken in by the strange, petty culture of gods and goddesses Miller crafted, and by Circe’s rich characterization. She’s a lesser goddess, an unfavored child of the sun god, Helios – who spends most of her adult living alone, banished somewhat unfairly to a remote island; she’s also a singular female who, without much support from family or friends, finds her own power and self-worth.


2. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

I haven’t written much this year, but when I did, I wrote about this book . It falls under the category of nonfiction that isn’t necessarily more artful, profound, or revolutionary than anything else I read all year; instead, Deep Work simply explained a concept that I needed to understand at this point in my life, and it did so with simple engaging urgency. This is the book I thought about the most all year. While I took Newport’s message – do everything you can to do the kind of work that takes all of your concentration – to heart, putting it to practice has been a little more challenging. It’s no surprise that this is yet another self-help-y/productivity book that doesn’t mention caring for toddlers, pregnancy nausea, or breastfeeding… or chronic pain, mental illness, the economic/personal necessity of working multiple jobs, or any other everyday life situations that myself and people I know might find to be significant barriers to ever achieving Deep Work. But for me, I’ve found his ideas to serve as a gentle beacon that reminds me of what’s important: reading, writing, and caring for myself and my family, aka doing the things that only I can do. Doing that work with intention and as much brain power as I can muster is never going to be a bad idea, and the more time I spend on it the better. I definitely want to re-read this in 2019, and am looking forward to his next book, which looks like a good, old fashioned anti-technology manifesto.


1. And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready by Meaghan O’Connell

I have read a great many books about pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood over the years. In my experience, they tend to run in two directions: the slightly crunchy, softly-lit, “isn’t motherhood just GRAND” kind of book, or the Hey, Parenting sure SUCKS so you should feel totally empowered to complain about it – and sure, have another glass of wine. I don’t necessarily have a *problem* with either of these narratives… but neither of them have really spoken to me, either before I had kids or after. While my own experience of motherhood hasn’t been quite the same as O’Connell’s (she is a little more on the PARENTING SUCKS side of the spectrum than I am) there was just so, so much that she got right about the broader experience of the culture of motherhood RIGHT NOW. Millennial Motherhood, maybe? If that wasn’t so annoying? Of being a young, creative, hustling woman who also might want to procreate, even though it’s probably not a good idea and you have no good role models and nobody even TALKS about it. Of the bizarre, sourceless pressure put upon mothers to do everything right, before, during, and after birth that just permeates even your most private moments. Combine that with a fantastically wry voice and I’m-actually-laughing-out-loud-and-not-just-using-it-as-a-textual-interjection humor, and I’m ready to pick this one up again. For the third time. There’s a lot more I’m forgetting to say here, but it’s 8:15 p.m. and my 2.5 year old is at least somewhat silent in his hopefully dark bedroom and my five week old is waking herself up and it’s New Year’s Eve so I should probably at least see if my husband wants to share a glass of wine before I put on my flannel pajamas, so I’m just going to go ahead and push publish, and I’ll see you in 2019!

07 Feb 2018

what i read this month – january 2018

First up for January… finishing up a few dangling review books. One of these was left in Michigan. While I was bed-sharing with a wakeful crib-climbing toddler at 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, my spouse was left in charge of packing for our early morning flight… and somehow, my I-Must-Read-This-By-The-End-of-Next-Week book was left behind. Thankfully, my place of business had a copy for checkout, but here’s something – I had to text my Mom and ask her what the title of the stupid book was. Welcome to the end of Guide Season, where I cannot remember the name of the book you are currently reading. Also, welcome to 2017-2018, where contemporary YA titles are equally vague and entirely interchangeable. Here’s a brief sampling I’ve come across in my reading lately:

  • These Things I’ve Done
  • Things I’m Seeing Without You
  • This is Not the End
  • Now is Everything
  • Where I Live
  • You Don’t Know Me But I Know You
  • If There’s No Tomorrow
  • The Beautiful Lost

Mind you, I did not troll lists of YA books looking for the most meaningless titles. I actually read all of these books. And no, for the most part I can’t really remember what they were about.

So I finished two of these meaningless titles in January – These Things I’ve Done and Things I’m Seeing Without You. Book about “Things” A was about a dead best friend and survivor’s guilt. Book about “Things” B was about a dead Internet boyfriend and the alternative funeral industry. I read. I wrote reviews. I moved on with my life.

And what did I move on to?? The exciting world of Books for Adults!

I mean, after I finished three books for Younger than Adults: two about criminals and one about cats. I’ve been wanting to read E. Lockhart’s latest, Genuine Fraud. It’s a rather action-y thriller with a really emotionally distant protagonist, which feels like a departure for Lockhart and did put me off somewhat. But it’s also about class and rich folks that live on the Vineyard, which is familiar territory. About half-way in, the tension really got me, and I sped through the second half feeling entirely uneasy.

I finished reading the winner of the 1931 Newbery Medal on my Kindle – The Cat Who Went to Heaven with Elizabeth Coatsworth, which is the world’s shortest book. It’s about a Japanese artist and his helpful genius cat who really knows what the Buddha was about and – spoiler alert – dies at the end. That’s really all I can say about that one.

And then, my book club’s choice for our February meeting. We are officially reading Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth, but Frank Cottrell Boyce’s debut – Millions – is an optional choice. And of course, when you offer me two books, I will read them chronologically. Millions was quite charming – loved the single-dad-to-boys family dynamic and the just preposterous enough premise.

Next, the adult books:

I listened to two memoirs on audio – Unraveled, a story of how the author went from happy SAHM to divorced and living with her lover in California while her ex-husband maintained physical custody of their three children – and The Year of Less – a story of a twenty-something’s choice to give up shopping for a year. Both were good audio fodder, but The Year of Less was definitely my favorite of the two – strangely enough, it felt much more intimate and revelatory than Unraveled, even though the subject matter was more quotidian.

I also read two memoirs… in print. As in, books that don’t read themselves to you! My first choice was driven by the sad realization that while I have access to plenty of pre-pub books at work, I never… actually… read any of them. So I grabbed Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am, and I really enjoyed it. Excellent prose, short chapters, and very… I don’t know… womanly. Stories about pregnancy and childbirth, about relationships with men in her life, about caring for children and her parents and growing up. It definitely had a woman’s sentiment.

The second was driven by my not-so-brief list of Books I Really Do Want To Read Someday. I picked up Pamela Paul’s My Life with Bob on a Saturday when I had cramps and was also coming down with a cold. A perfect couch-bound weekend read. Also, I’m deeply envious of Paul’s… um… life. As a whole.

And then two works of adult fiction, both about suburbia, but from entirely different angles. The first was Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, which I snatched off the Lucky Day shelf at work, which meant I had to hustle to bring it back. So hustle I did, and I wasn’t disappointed. I’m not going to tell you about it because you surely have heard about it. Statistically, you are probably one of the 500 patrons of my library who have it on hold! I will say that it had plenty of the domestic commentary and teen POV characters that I find so appealing. The second was List: A Novel, by my beloved undergraduate advisor Matthew Roberson. It’s an incredibly up-close look at a marriage – so up-close that it’s occasionally hard to tell if you’re still in the same character’s head or if you’ve slipped into the home of another vaguely despairing husband or wife. Compelling, but also somewhat horrifying. I finished it and found myself asking my husband over dinner, “So, what can we do right now so we won’t accidentally start hating each other and get divorced?” We came up with a few ideas…

Aaaand…. theeeenn…  two straight nonfiction books. I did conquer Leo Babauta’s The Power of Less. I was… Less than Impressed. It was fine, really, but not great. I might write more about it later. And speaking of (pint-sized, rambunctious) productivity-challenges, I also read Your One-Year-Old by Louise Bates Ames, which is a parenting manual written the 80s. I read the first half when My One-Year-Old was just about to be One; I read the second half when he was almost 19 months. Some of the advice feels dated (child leashes anyone?), but it’s a bit more holistic than modern baby-raising-manuals, which tend toward the clinical in my experience. It was nice to read about how nutty young toddlers are – in great behavioral and developmental detail – and then have the authors say, repeatedly, “Oh, one-year-olds. Can’t teach them anything! Just wait a few months” and feel better about myself.

I’m officially out of thematic and format-ic connections. Also: damn. I read a lot this month. I listened to Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s incredibly brief We Should All Be Feminists while I cleaned my house one weekend, because was Available Now on Overdrive and I was sucked in by an audiobook that was shorter than an episode of the The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Goys. I remember very little except thinking, “Oh yes, I agree with that,” quite often.

You may have noticed that I have skipped from November to January in these (potentially)-faithful reading round-ups. Did I read nothing? No books for 31 days? Au contraire, mon frère. I read about fourteen books in December of 2017. Most of them meaninglessly-titled review books; two adult non-fic re-reads (see: stress); and an adult fic book that topped many Best Of lists when it came out years ago that I just now got around to reading and, of course, loving. See you next month, when I will surely have received the gift of brevity that so blesses most folks who write monthly reading round-ups.


02 Jan 2018

Best Reads of 2017

Sound the alarms! Trumpet your trumpets! I am posting my favorite reads of 2017 on the second day of the first month of the year! A somewhat delayed but altogether reasonable time to post such a list! Ta-da! Wow! Amazing! Let’s get to it!

10. Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro

Writer Shapiro recalls – and then contemplates, ruminates, and poeticizes – her long marriage to her reporter-turned-screenwriter husband. It’s a slim book told in brief, clipped vignettes, which is a form I enjoy and believe perfectly suited to Shapiro’s style; the intense, undiluted intimacy she creates is easier to handle in small doses.


9. The Disturbed Girls’ Dictionary by Noneiqa Ramos

Here’s a story about a teen who suffers a dozen or so of what us caring, white adults will call “traumatic childhood experiences,” but comes out of her trauma swinging. Wielding an attitude as big as a house, Macy Cashmere can’t acquiesce to the demands of her teachers, but she’ll move mountains for her best friend Alma and her baby brother, Zane. As a caring, white adult, this was an EXCEPTIONALLY difficult read, but the voice was just so raw and honest and blazingly good I have to recommend it.



8. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I’m sure you don’t need one more recommendation for this book, but oh, I do just love it when the YA-buzz books are actually pretty good. In this one, Starr Carter witnesses a close friend’s murder by a police officer, which leads her into the politics of her gang-influenced neighborhood and the mass protests that disrupt it. There was a moment toward the end that was so tense and nerve-wracking that I cried. While listening to the audiobook. This really does not happen with me and YA…


7. Waiting for Birdy by Catherine Newman

Whenever I look for non-instructional books about pregnancy and birth, I am shocked by how few have been published… but of the few, Waiting for Birdy seems to be the most universally recommended. I finally read this (and its companion, Catastrophic Happiness), on my Kindle; I was so enamored with Newman’s honest but loving depiction of her family life and her humorous, easy-going voice that I probably let my little guy sleep-nurse longer than necessary while I read yet another essay.


6. The Fashion Committee by Susan Juby

Two Canadian teens compete in a fashion competition. Sartorial obsessed, Diana Vreeland-wannabe Charlie Dean is hilariously passionate about her art. Sardonic, lazy John Thomas just wants in to the fancy private school, so he – hilariously – turns his fashion ignorance into a mysterious and alluring “who cares about the rules of fashion” persona. Very fun, very moving, and very surprising; Susan Juby is doing such great work in realistic YA.


5. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

A richly imagined, provocative historical novel that follows a young enslaved woman’s escape from her captors. Also, a pop of magical realism. But it’s not the magical realism I remember, now; it’s Cora’s tenacity, the relentless brutality of the white men literally invested in Cora’s body as a piece of property, and the unbearable tension that she may be caught at any moment.


4. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Sociologist Desmond spent eight years living alongside low-income renters in Milwaukee, chronicling their lives with specific attention paid to housing. As an 8-year renter in a large city known for its housing crunch, I can certainly sympathize with those facing the unexpected Perils of Renting. My expenses and inconveniences are nothing compared to those who are trapped in jaws of low-income renting; it’s a broken system that seems to only funnel government assistance money into the hands of predatory landlords at the massive expense of their systemically oppressed tenants. Desmond sheds much needed light on this particularly devastating cog in the cycle of poverty.


3. Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin

This collection of personal essays and recipes is a cult-classic for a reason. Colwin’s writing is warm, guileless, and welcoming. Unlike a lot of foodie memoirs, her tone is not sentimental, utilitarian, or professional: she’s just writing about the pleasures – and pratfalls – of preparing real food in your own home, for yourself or people you love.


2. The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

A diary-style story about a plucky fourteen-year-old girl who abandons her family farm to seek her fortune – and independence from her family – in early 20th century America. Lengthy, tween-y, historical fiction tomes aren’t usually in my wheelhouse, but its praise was so universal: every person I talked to who had read it was just effusive. And now I am one of them. Joan is one of the most endearing, delightful narrators I’ve met in years.


1. Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence

Librarian Spence writes light-hearted effervescent “letters” to the books in her life. Gimmicky book-person bait? Perhaps, but oh, Spence’s intimate voice just charmed my socks off. This is a bit of a genre blender: each piece is part personal essay, part reading recommendation, and part ode to the act of reading. And all parts compulsively readable to a fellow millennial bookworm

I also just wanted to take a self-centered moment to mention that Spence and I are fellow CMU creative writing alumni, public librarians, and writers-who-write-about-books. So she is basically living my life, except significantly more awesome since she dreamed up this delightful book.


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! ~

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.


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.