All posts in: book reviews

16 Dec 2014

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer


#9 Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

I have a lot of shameful stories about books I should have read at a time in my life, but for some inane reason I did not. I mean, I guess I have a lot of not-so-shameful stories about not reading books, too. Ask me about the time I didn’t read War and Peace – yeah, I would probably be a better, more literate person if I’d muscled through my assigned reading back in undergrad, but I’m not ashamed about skirting that required reading. In fact, I’m kind of smarmy about it.

Ages ago, when I was still a Little Jessica, my darling, mountain-climbing-book reading mother bought me a copy of Into Thin Air for Christmas. I was probably in high school. I had probably never read a nonfiction book that I could get into. Mostly I didn’t want to read it because it was a…. mass market paperback. Ick.

I didn’t read my first Jon Krakauer until I was in my early twenties. It was Under the Banner of Heaven. I was in love. I think I found it on my mother-in-law’s book shelves while I was in the middle of my Mormon Fascination. I was primed for this book – it was exactly up my alley. But while I read (or, more likely, devoured) this book, I was aware of being taken in not just by the subject matter but by the narrative voice. It’s hard for me to describe Krakauer’s particular, singular narrative skill. He writes with an impartial journalistic eye, but he turns the camera around to examine his own life often enough that you get a feel for him as a character. Then he shifts from journalist to narrator, guiding the reader through information and into new environments with a steady hand. Reading a Krakauer book is like talking to your most fascinating friend – the one who tells the best stories – and she’s launching into a really good one.

Have a fawned over the author enough? Well I suppose I could also tell you a little bit about the book, in case you’ve been encased in carbonite for a few decades and missed this bestseller. Seriously. Sorry, Mom. I really should have read it! Into Thin Air is a story about high-altitude mountain climbing – in particular, it’s about Krakauer’s first attempt to peak Mt. Everest, which became one of the deadliest Everest expeditions in years. I will never climb a mountain. I have never been interested in climbing mountains. I don’t really understand why people would even want to risk their health and safety to climb mountains. But Krakauer writes in a way that pulled me into just those moral questions.  Why do humans – repeatedly and throughout time – take their lives into their own hands in order to pursue the unknown? Or to chase a pleasant moment or memory? What toll does it take on the environment, or indigenous cultures? What – or who – is sacrificed to make mountain climbing possible? Who holds the blame when disaster strikes? The story he tells is brutal and detailed and devastating – you really get to know all of the climbers, and Krakauer paced the book in a way that I’d forgotten just how awful the ending was going to be. This is pretty much everything I want when I open up a nonfiction book. I recommend you not wait ten years from now to pick this one up.

15 Dec 2014

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki


#10 This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki

Boy, am I a sucker for a good Summer Read. Seriously. Throw the word “summer” in a book title and I’m in. I blame Sarah Dessen, Summer Sisters, and my parents for letting me go to summer camp.

I picked up Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer a few weeks after I returned from my week at the beach, and it was like I’d stepped back into Summer Vacation Land. This graphic novel opens with a series of gorgeous spreads depicting Rose’s arrival to her family’s vacation home – a cottage at Awago Beach where Rose has spent most of her childhood summers. Rose is our protagonist – a gangly tween who wants little to do with her hippie-ish parents who are struggling with something they don’t speak about. Maybe she wants nothing to do with her slightly younger summer friend, Windy, either. Rose’s posture speaks volumes – she’s all loose jointed and indifferent, her eyes often looking just away from the other characters in a frame, like she’s hoping something better might come along.

Both the dialog and the intricate and evocative art work contribute to just bafflingly good character development in this graphic novel. Sometimes I feel like even graphic novels that don’t star superheroes tend toward trauma, violence, and Big Stories. This could be the nature of the graphic novel format – it’s easier to tell visual stores that involve characters who… oh, you know… move around. But so many of my favorite novels are the interior stories, the books that could never be made into movies. Finally, the Tamakis have captured my favorite breed of quiet, introspective coming of age stories with words and text in this excellent graphic novel. The characters in This One Summer are just as nuanced and distinct as any coming of age novel I’ve read, and Rose’s journey from the last dregs of childhood to the very beginning of adolescence is just as complex.

During one summer, Rose confronts many scenes that put her face to face with the way that adults really live. The guy at the video store maybe knocked a local girl up. Her mother has another miscarriage. She’s confused about becoming an adult, and afraid about it, but she’s also beginning to emulate it. This impacts her relationship with Windy immensely; Windy is younger, on the the other side of the divide between child and teen, and shows no interest in the kind of things that Rose seems fixated on. Rose pushes Windy around a bit, but Windy has a remarkably – and believably – strong sense of her own character. It’s a classic complicated friendship, but I want to say I’ve never seen a novel handle the nuances of a relationship between older and younger friends quite so adeptly.

What I am trying to say is: this is a graphic novel that is doing things I never dreamed graphic novels could do. It’s an entirely different tone than what I’ve grown used to. The only comparison I can draw is to Craig Thompson’s Blankets… which, from me, is a HIGH compliment – his latest was my #1 in 2012 – and alsooooooo…

I might like This One Summer better. Shh.

I would really not be surprised whatsoever if this showed up on the Printz list in January.

13 Dec 2014

Best Adult Nonfiction Reads


Hyperbole & a Half by Allie Brosh

I am a red-blooded twenty-something human on the Internet, so naturally I am an Allie Brosh fan. Her web series – also titled Hyperbole & a Half – picked up traction while I was in grad school – a time when my friends and I were especially primed for Brosh’s deadpan remarks on the unglamorous bits of adulthood.

This is pretty off topic, but one of my favorite grad school friend moments went a little like this –

Lady Friend: [something I can’t remember]… ALL THE THINGS!

Guy Redditor Friend: That is not how that meme goes!

Lady Friend: It’s from Hyperbole & a Half.

Guy Redditor Friend: I don’t know what that is, but you are wrong. It’s a meme. From the hallowed halls of Reddit.

Lady Friend: I apparently cannot express to you how wrong you are, so I give up.

Anywaaaaaaayyy… I used to be a casual Allie Brosh fan, but after reading her first full-length book I am a full-fledged, raging Allie Brosh fan. Don’t let the deliberately childlike illustrations fool you – Brosh is brimming with the effortless, invisible kind of talent you wish you had. Her narrative voice is distinct, dry, and authoritative. She zeroes in on weird, evocative stories from her childhood that are both informative to the kind of adult Brosh grew up to be and a bit unsettling. Brosh is a storyteller supreme, and I hope she keeps at it for a long time.


Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

Speaking of ladies who may be a voice of of a generation… here’s Lena Dunham; it seems I was quite the fan of millennial lady writers this year. I am, in general, a fan of Dunham’s work. GIRLS is one of the handful of television shows I keep up with, and while I find the characters occasionally infuriating I am still quite interested in how they will manage to pull their lives together at the end of the episode/season/series. Dunham’s book is similar in that way – her stories are rarely neat and tidy, the kind of womanly life advice that celebrity memoirs tend toward. No, these are stories about being a weird kid, having a slightly bizarre (and affluent) upbringing, about bad boyfriends and complicated friendships. As a fan of the show, it was kind of fun to see how Dunham takes strands from her life and weaves them into characters and events on the show, but I don’t think liking GIRLS is a prerequisite for liking this book. What really resonated with me was how Dunham talks about the particular preteen and teen culture of the mid-nineties that I grew up with – I can’t say I’ve ever read a personal essay about what happens when 11-year-olds discover the Internet Chat Room, but I have certainly lived through that strange moment in technological history. I also admired how Dunham portrays herself as a younger person – plainly, with a sense of humor, and without a whiff of nostalgia, as though she’s not looking back on someone that she was but at the person she still is. I’d argue that it’s this perspective that sets Dunham apart from other young artists. I do wish GIRLS plenty more success – if the show were to get cancelled before I find out what in the world happens to Shoshanna Shapiro, I would flip – but I also hope that Dunham keeps writing books as well.


Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers, ed. by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon

If you thought Lena Dunham was polarizing, well, how about a bunch of birth stories? Is it possible to be neutral about birth stories? I feel like either you like reading them or you would never poke one with a ten foot pole. Well, I like birth stories. A lot. They are personal, filled with all sorts of tension. Reading birth stories makes me feel connected to the rest of woman-culture, all of those ladies alive and gestating now, just like they’ve gestated since the dawn of time. If even looking at the word “gestating” makes you queasy then by all means look elsewhere for a good read. Otherwise, this was a really great collection of contemporary birth stories written by writers who actually know how to write. No offense to all of you birth-bloggers out there – I still love reading your stories as well – but before I picked up Labor Day it never occurred to me that there was such thing as the “literary” birth story. And you guys know how impossibly snooty I am about “literary-ness.” That was a joke. I think. Either way, this book rose to the top for me because not only was it directly up my particular alley, it also introduced me to quite a few new women writers – I’m excited to explore their non-birth-related prose. I mean, I’d read more birth-related prose, too, but you know, there are only so many babies that one group of women can produce. If only the Duggars were talented writers… Okay. Officially ending this review NOW.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

Boy, did I read a lot of essay collections this year! Of the bunch, this is probably close to being my favorite. I am the only person on the planet who has not yet read and loved Bel Canto, so this was my first introduction to Ann Patchett. I was hooked. So hooked that this embarrassing scene happened: I began listening to the audio version of this book because it was on my TBR list and it was available when I needed a book. I listened to the first few minutes, the introduction, where Patchett gives that mandatory overview of what is to come in the book. She mentioned all of these fascinating articles she’d written, and I was so intrigued that I actually stopped listening and started searching the Interwebs to see if I could find one of these articles to read. I missed the bit where this was an INTRODUCTION and that all of the articles she was teasing would… ah… comprise the rest of the book. Anyway, this was my first exposure to Patchett, and I was completely taken in. The essays range from stories about growing up, stories about being a writer, stories about training to join the police academy, stories about her marriage, her dog. Patchett is the kind of essay writer that would inspire me to read her grocery lists, and I really loved listening to her read her own work on the audio version.

Delancey by Molly Wizenberg

Is it obvious from this list how much I enjoy memoirs? Well. It’s a scientific fact. I do love me a good memoir. I also love Molly Wizenberg – Orangette – an awful lot. I read A Homemade Life waaaaay back in the day, so I was pretty excited for this follow up. I was definitely not disappointed. From what I recall (many, many years and many, many books ago), A Homemade Life was a kind of encompassing, snippets from an entire life kind of memoir that ends around the time she meets the man she wants to marry. Delancey picks up with Molly’s marriage to her husband, Brandon. As a young married lady myself, this is juuuuust the kind of memoir that turns all my cranks. It’s a memoir about getting what you want out of your life, but then what? For Molly and Brandon, the “then what” ends up being a restaurant. The restaurant – Delancey, a pizza restaurant in Seattle – takes over their married life, in good ways and in bad. Wizenberg writes as a chronicler of the fascinating (and occasionally horrifying) work required to get a restaurant up and running, but also a chronicler of the ways this major project affected her relationship. It’s an honest, personal story about a particular couple, but it’s also a story about discovering your passions and pursuing big dreams with another person by your side.

And did I mention the recipes? The recipes. Oh my word. There are only a dozen, but it would be worth the price of the book to have them even if you don’t read it. There’s a sriracha shrimp recipe that was so good that I can’t even explain it. I made it again… and again… and again… and now that you mention it, I might make it again tonight

An Age of License by Lucy Knisley

I was not as blown away by Lucy Knisley’s 2013 graphic memoir – Relish – as was the general public. I enjoyed it – and I do think that her chocolate chip cookie recipe IS, in fact, the best chocolate chip recipe in existence – but it as just a little more nostalgic that I like to see in a memoir (especially those written by under-30s). But an Age of License? Yes, yes please. I was a big fan of Knisley’s first graphic travelogue – French Milk – and this follow-up travelogue really reminded me of how much I enjoy Knisley’s perspective of her own life, and also her lovely drawing style. An Age of License covers Knisley’s first mostly solo trip around Europe, where she attends a comics convention as a presenter, travels about France with her mother, and meets up with a sexy vegan Swede. This is a fun – and gorgeous – account of Knisley’s trip, sprinkled with brief meditations on the transformative nature of travel – and the transformative nature of your late twenties.

Up next… Books for the Young Adults

11 Dec 2014

Best Adult Fiction Reads of 2014


The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

I like to consider myself a reader with broad tastes, but when it comes to choosing my Very Favorites there are a few types of books that always bubble to the top. I like big, fat family dramas. I like stories that follow children or teen characters on into their adulthood. I like stories where young people meet each other in isolated settings, forge quick and complicated social bonds, and then grow up together. I like stories that narrow in on the lives of women younger than 40. The Interestings does all this… AND it’s a summer camp story. Swoon.

But at the end of the day, this is a Big Fat Family Drama – so big and fat and dense that it took me a few check outs to actually read the thing. And it wasn’t a particularly easy task! Jules’s story wasn’t

The Interestings is certainly a Big Fat Book rife with family drama – so big and fat and dense on the page that it took me a few check outs to get around to reading it. And it wasn’t a particularly quick read, either; I didn’t fall into the story as much as slide. I ingratiated myself into the pack of characters Wolitzer introduces, all young men and women who met at an artsy summer camp as children. I didn’t find many of the characters charming or charismatic or anything like friends I would choose for myself, but Wolitzer writes their lives in such a way that I was very… ah… interested in where they would end up. Beyond the pleasure of exploring their idiosyncratic relationships, The Interestings also provides an exploration of what it means to be an artist. I found the whole book quite thought-provoking and engaging, and will likely re-read it someday.


The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Speaking of dense, gigantic books, here is a book so large that I did not even try to bring it onto public transportation! After the Game of Thrones binge that was 2013, I decided to lay off Westeros a bit this year, maybe branch out, try another brand of epic fantasy for a minute. Recommendations led me to Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle, which I nobly added to my Summer Reading List and read for pretty much the entire month of August. Because I couldn’t take it on the train without fear of breaking my wrists or perhaps accidentally dropping it onto someone’s head. This is a much different kind of story than Game of Thrones – smaller, more magical, and tightly focused on our fairly standard hero, Kvothe – an orphan who works his way off the streets and into a college for skilled magicians. Luckily, I found Kvothe an endearing, sympathetic guy to hang out with for half a bazillion pages, and Rothfuss’s world-building superb. (Did I just describe world-building? At all? Oh, Fantasy-hating Jessica, what has happened to you?)


Last Light by M. Pierce

So, a few months ago, I was kinda reading swamped. I can’t remember the particulars, but it’s book review season so I’m guessing I just had way too many books to read and not enough time within which to read them. Then my copy of Last Light (my October book) showed up in my mailbox. And it was shiny, with a nice soft cover, and then… well… you can see where this is going. This is the second book in at trilogy, and I read Night Owl way-back last year. I probably didn’t mention it here because it’s decidedly NOT a children’s book. In fact, it’s a bit of a dirty book. But I had to give a shout out Last Light this year because A) it seduced me into blowing off all sorts of good intentions B) when was the last time you read a bitofadirtybook and instead of skimming through the plot to get to the good stuff, you find yourself skimming the good stuff so you can get back to the plot? C) when was the last time you read a sequel that exceeded your expectations? So there you have it. Adults, if you like a good contemporary romance but you also like capable writing, surprising characters, and maybe even a little metafictive narrative playfulness, then this is the series for you! Last installment will be released in March!


The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

Yesterday, while reading this lengthy article about the real-life inspiration behind Nabokov’s Lolita, I thought a bit about Humbert Humbert and his enduring grip on generations of readers. I read Lolita after college – I picked it up because I’d heard it was a classic but was also somewhat salacious. Also, my younger sister had a copy, and I saw it laying about the house from time to time. It was a ubiquitous kind of book, with characters that have stayed with me – especially Humbert Humbert. What a character. And then I thought about The People in the Trees, because I’m not sure there are many other characters in literature that can come closer to a Humbert Humbert than Yanagihara’s Norton Perina. Perina begins as a medical student who tagging along with an anthropologist on a trip to a remote island in Micronesia. His encounters with the natives lead his career back and back again to the island of Ivu’ivu, where some inhabitants may have found the secret to eternal life. Perina is self-obsessed. He’s callous. He’s a little power-hungry. He’s a doctor, devoted to science. He’s a benefactor to the islanders that he studies.

And boy, he’s slimy. Dripping in it. Yanagihara crafts a fascinating story – which, like Lolita, is based in reality – about the gray areas of science and ethics in the mid-twentieth century, and sticks a weird, complex, shifty man right smack in the middle. Not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure, but this book was riveting and horrifying and not one I will soon forget.


Landline by Rainbow Rowell

It wouldn’t be an end of the year list without a Rainbow Rowell title, eh? I debated about including this one. Like Attachments, this is another romance for adults, but this time its a romance about married people. Georgie is a hardworking TV writer. Her husband stays home with their two daughters and runs the household. They suffer under the pressures of modern coupledom (and just regular coupledom). Georgie finds a phone that lets her talk to her husband when they were first dating, which leads her to relive a lot of their early relationship.

This didn’t blow the rest of Rowell’s oeuvre out of the water or anything. I appreciated reading a romance starring married folks – Rowell is quite skilled at finding new angles from which to look at familiar stories – but nothing really stuck out at me as super-exemplary, especially looking back months later.

And then I remembered the ending, so I had to be the 900th person to recommend this book. The ending. Oh. Objectively, it’s probably not that good of an ending. I have no idea. All I know is that Rowell has yet again grabbed bits of my psyche and whipping them into story form. The ending made me realize that I’d just read a book about every biggest relationship problem that I’ve ever had, and that this ending – Georgie’s ending – was always what I’ve deeply dreamed of, in every relationship I’ve ever been in.

How do you do it, Rainbow? How, how, how?

Up next… Real-life books for grown-ups!

09 Dec 2014

Best Reads of 2014




It’s time to talk about my favorite reads of the year!

I have been at this particular game for a significant period of time. Perhaps too long? Maybe someday I will be so busy that I can’t be bothered to write a zillion posts about books in December. In fact, I have been veryveryvery busy. Busy enough that I really should not be undertaking any additional undertakings.

And yet.

Old habits die hard.

As usual, this is definitely not a Best of 2014 list. These lists include books published this year, next year – any year; they are assembled from the particular crop of books I’ve read in 2014. More accurately, they are assembled from the particular crop of books that I’ve only read for the first time – and only during my arbitrarily decided upon Fiscal Reading Year. FRY14 ran from late December to mid-November this time around. I’ve also chosen to remove some books from consideration this year for some non-blog related reasons. The authenticity of this particular Best Of list is even more in question than usual. But don’t worry – there are nearly 150 remaining books to choose from this year. There’s plenty of good stuff left! Also, I’ve planned a couple of Fun! New! Surprising! Lists! Am I the only one entertained by all of this? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. But this is my blargh – I do what I want.

Speaking of doing what I want, a reminder that everything I write here on this blargh is my own brain matter, my personal opinions, nothing at all that represents the opinions of my employers or anyone else with whom I do business. I relinquish all associations that may give you the impression that I am of any authority. These books are all about my enjoyment, my gut feelings, The Person I Am while Reading The Books That I Happened to Want to Read this year.

From now until Christmastime, here is what is in store for you!

Tuesday, December 9thBest Middle Grade Reads

Thursday, December 11thBest Adult Fiction Reads

Thursday, December 11th –  Best Adult Nonfiction Reads

Friday, December 12thBest Young Adult Fiction Reads


Saturday, December 13th through Saturday, December 24thTop 10 Best Reads!


10. This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

9. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Be happy! Be excited! Be prepared to forgive me if I get so backed up writing these blog posts that I finish next December 24th and turn my blog into a perpetual, yearlong “What Books Were Good Last Year” blog. Oh wait, that’s exactly what my blog is. Maybe I should just write nothing but End of the Year Book Blog posts, for the rest of time – a never ending cycle. I kind of like that idea, actually. Hmmm… Either way, time to get a-postin’. See you tomorrow!

20 Oct 2014

Five Books Worth Mentioning: 2014 Q3

You guys all read Janssen over at Everyday Reading, I’m sure. I have always adored her quarterly reading updates.

I am a major-league voyeur – nosy to the max – so peeking into anyone’s reading life is a pleasure, but she also just has a way with the the two sentence book review. So pithy! So fun! I’ve tried to emulate these posts a few times, but I usually burn out after a few mini-reviews. But I’ve always wanted to play along, so I’m going to take a slightly different tack and tell you a bit about five books I read this quarter that are worth mentioning. Emphasis on books I haven’t already mentioned! Some of them are good, some of them are not so good, but all are – at the very least – worth mentioning.

181896061. Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson

Okay, okay. I’ve mentioned this one before. But I wanted to give Morgan Matson’s latest a quick shout out because I really liked it a lot. It was fun. Breezy. Light, but not fluffy. The obligatory romance wasn’t too easy or mushy, and the premise – girl performs a list of daring tasks left by her absentee best friend – didn’t dominate the story. I’ve tried a lot of “If you like Sarah Dessen, you’ll love…” books, and I have to say, Morgan Matson is one of very few who I have deemed worthy of the Dessen comparison. It’s not a perfect book – some of the conflict between Emily and her Desired Boy could have been, and eventually was, cleared up with a conversation, which is a plot device I’m not a fan of – but it was a smooth, enjoyable book that I wanted to keep reading. So I nominated it for the Cybils. Last year my nomination made it to the short list, so maybe I’ll get lucky again this year!


2. Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

This was a random audiobook pick for me this summer. It was available on Overdrive. I recognized it from Library Reads. The plot – scholarship student spends the summer at her wealthy (and dysfunctional) family’s summer estate – was directly up my alley. The story pulled me in within the first thirty minutes or so. We had a win.

So, not to get too spoiler-y, but what’s the fun of reading a book such as this one? Figuring out the how and the what and the why of this family’s particular breed of dysfunction, of course. I’m listening along while Mabel Dagmar swoons over the beautiful property and the beautiful family and their beautiful family, and then starts to dig into their family secrets… and I start to get a definite Ned Stark vibe. As in, watch your back, Mabel. Also incest.

I won’t tell you what the secret was. If you want to find out, there are plenty of spoiler-y Goodreads comments to be had, mine included.  But I will say this – after a few hundred pages, the fun was no longer “Oooh, what will the secret be? How will this work out,” but instead “WHEN WILL IT STOP WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS FAMILY.”

Unrelated/related: setting is huge in Bittersweet. I think the author was counting on the reader feeling so enamored by this idyllic, sprawling landscape that they might forgive a few of the heinous characters who hang out there. But as I was listening to the these lush descriptions of the family estate – cottages for all of your aunts and uncles and cousins, a family mess hall with a full-time cooking staff, etc – I became skeptical. Who truly lives like this? This environment is so over the top, so luxurious and exclusive and shabby chic that the whole book takes on a certain eau de soap opera.

And then, a few weeks ago, I spent the night at exactly such a family compound. We took a quick tour of the grounds before leaving. Here’s the Big House.


This is not to malign the owners of said estate, of course. While most families boast at least some domestic drama, I hope against hopes that the heights of scandal Beverly-Whittemore weaves Bittersweet is only found in fiction.


3. Warp by Lev Grossman

I’ve been a bit of a shameless Lev Grossman fangirl this year. I will accept any arguments you might have against his Magicians series; while I might not agree with your opinions and will likely argue against them, I don’t hold the books themselves on some sort of literary pedestal. But for the humor, the finely woven literary references, and the audacity of big ideas he tackles within a fairly traditional set of fantasy structures, and his career and worldview in general… I do revere the author.

Anyway, I’m trying to tell you that I’ve read a lot of Lev Grossman interviews in 2014, and I became intrigued by his first novel – Warp. The way Grossman tells it, Warp was a bit of a fluke, a lark, a Right Place, Right Time-in-the-Publishing-Landscape kind of book; a book published by luck rather than by merit. When The Magicians came out, his publishers inadvertently left it off his “Also written by” sheet, further shoving this debut effort into supposedly deserved, out of print obscurity.

But of course, my behemoth of a library system still held a circulating copy of this supposedly lost text. And of course I checked it out. It was Lev Grossman, it was weird and obscure, and it takes place in post-collegiate Boston – of course, I wanted to read it. But you guys know how I operate: just because I’m interested in a book and even check it out and take it home doesn’t mean that I will actually read a book.

But then one Saturday afternoon, I plucked it off of my library book shelf and I just couldn’t put it down. It wasn’t a hidden masterpiece, but it was a good read. So interesting to see the very beginnings of literary talent beginning to take root – certain turns of phrase and characterization. The talent is there. I can see it. An editor saw it. Tracing themes through an author’s long-ago backlist is an entertaining way to spend one’s reading hours; for those of us struggling with our own first written creations, it’s can be comforting. Everyone starts somewhere.



4. Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

In the latest episode of Jessica Finally Reads Fantasy, I present to you Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce. All of my formerly anti-fantasy tendencies aside, I do feel a twinge of shame not to have read a single book by a prolific, much-beloved and honored children’s author such as Tamora Pierce. Lucky for me, I needed an audiobook on the quick a few weeks ago and found Alanna was ready for me – and I was finally ready for her.

I expected to find a well-crafted medieval-fantasy story with a distinctly feminist bent, and that is what I found. Alanna is a high-born girl who wants to become a knight; with buckets of perserverence, skill, and pluck, she disguises her developing woman’s body and kicks all the boys’ butts. What I wasn’t expecting to discover was the sometimes forgotten charms of a good, old-fashioned episodic school story. See: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Or even Sideways Stories from Wayside School. Each chapter is a vignette, a trial or a triumph that doesn’t necessarily weave a grander plot but when read in succession implies Alanna’s growth and progress. A larger mystery begins to unfold as the stories progress, leading to a climactic confrontation where the heroine must test out those newly acquired skills.

It’s a pattern, it’s a trope, but in the hands of a skilled writer it can be a pleasure. And it’s a pleasure I’m particularly inclined to enjoy, even though I’m no longer 10 years old. Perhaps because I’m no longer 10 years old.


160689495. The Boy I Love by Nina de Gramont

Look guys. I really try not to trash books on the Internet if I can possibly avoid it. Do I express negative opinions about certain books or certain aspects of books? Yes. Do I cast an intentionally rosy glow over every book I read? No. I attempt to talk honestly about the books I’ve read, and of course everything I write about books obviously carries some sort of personal bias, but I am a Professional Book Person. I try not to wield my opinion like a weapon. I try not to poke fun, to mock, to employ hyperbolic gifs, to deliberately read books I know I will dislike. In most cases, I feel this is the responsible way to talk about books on the internet.

Buuuut will you guys look at this book cover for a minute? Are your eyes rolling? Would you read this while riding public transportation? Can you imagine a more ridiculous stock photo/book title combination?

Well, don’t worry guys. It’s nothing like you are imagining. Well, it’s a little like you are imagining, but what I found underneath this book cover was a pretty solid piece of girl-centric YA realism. In the vein of Sarah Dessen, even. And lest you think the book will be too swoony for you, here’s a big fat second chapter spoiler: the boy that she loves? he’s gay.

Not to say that the book is flawless, or even in the top 50% of books I’ve read this year – specifically, some severely wacky third-act plot events lowered my general appraisal – but I just wanted to use my Professional Book Person powers to tell you not to judge this book by its ridiculous cover.


24 Sep 2014

the last five memoirs

I have a reading success story for you guys.

After a few years of succumbing to August Reading Doldrums, I think I have finally discovered the secret. I finally reached far enough down into the depths of my psyche and found the inner fortitude, perseverance, and stick-to-it-iveness I needed to keep reading all through the month and into September.

Just kidding. I just reached down into the considerable depths of my self-indulgent nature and said “To hell with all of the books I am supposed to read. Bring on all the trashy memoirs.”

Okay. Only some of the memoirs I read were trashy. And I don’t even know what I mean by the term “trashy.” Low-brow? Confessional? Not-literary? Whatever. I actively sought out a lot of memoirs in August – most of them on audio – and it was the kind of indulgent, impulsive reading that this professionalbookperson doesn’t often get anymore.


The Last Five – Memoirs


I started my memoir streak with Kerry Cohen’s Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity, which I just found so compulsively listen-able that I went out seeking other confessional memoirs. Drugs. Sex. Disease. This was the kind of tawdry stuff August-Jessica was looking for. But I accidentally found Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life instead. Wolff’s memoir had a fair share of dishy moments, but it was definitely a Literary Memoir. No matter. I was sucked right in. Mr. Wolff’s childhood would be unique in these modern times – when his mother divorced, she left Tobias’s brother with her ex-husband and carted young Tobias across the country to make money mining uranium….. but this was the 1950s. Tobias’s story is a really intriguing counterpoint to the narratives of 1950s childhood we usually see in the media. It is definitely a “dysfunctional childhood” memoir – Wolff’s has an understandably complex relationship with his parents, especially after his mother marries an emotionally abusive man – but in Wolff’s hands it’s also a treatise on identity, maturity, and masculinity.

So, not trashy. But very good.



Speaking of testosterone….. so I read a lot of memoirs in August. But I also read a lot of manly man books. This Boy’s Life, yes, also The Magician King and The Magician’s Land (at least moderately man-centric). Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs. 700 pages of fantastical boyhood and adolescence in The Name of the Wind. Grasshopper Jungle. Freaking Rabbit Angstrom.

That’s a lot of… um… man hours. Or something.

Enter, a pair of lady memoirs. Stacy Morrison’s Falling Apart in One Piece is a memoir about divorce. Delancey is a memoir about marriage, and how opening a restaurant together with your new husband may put you at risk for divorce. Delancey: ultimately uplifting. Falling Apart in One Piece: utterly terrifying. In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin spends a chapter or so talking about how you can increase your daily feelings of happiness by reminding yourself of how good you have it, and she presents reading super-depressing memoirs as a quick way to do so. I find this particular happiness tip completely questionable (especially coming from privileged white ladies), but I have never felt so horrified and humbled as when I read Falling Apart in One Piece. Morrison met her partner young, had a long and happy relationship, plenty of career success, and finally a baby and a new house. Six months later, her husband asks for a divorce.


Like I said, Delancey was much more uplifting. I loved Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life, and Delancey was just as good. Also, the recipes. Buy the book for the recipes alone. I made her sriracha shrimp and tomato and corn salad twice in two weeks it was so fliiiiipppping good I want to eat some now.


Longtime readers might know that I have a preeeeeettty significant weak spot for sappy, consumable pop-memoirs. I liked The Last Lecture and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I count Animal Vegetable Miracle and Eat Pray Love as two of my forever favorites. I have a bizarre, enduring affection for Marley & Me. Basically, I’ve got emotions, and if you want to use your sappy life story to twist them, I’m down.

No surprise then that I enjoyed Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club. It’s a sappy memoir, AND it’s about books. I also enjoyed listened to About Alice earlier this year, and between these two memoirs I discovered yet another memoir sub-genre that I enjoy – the “Men Eulogizing the Extraordinary Women in Their Lives” memoir. Schmaltz city, guys. I’m totally okay with that.


Swinging wildly in the other direction, the last memoir I read this summer was the not-so-schmaltzy Kristin Newman’s What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding. Newman is a television writer, so this memoir has all of the playful punch-line-iness of Tina Fey’s Bossypants or Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? But unlike these two memoirs, Newman skips most of the childhood and career biography bits in order to focus in on her late 20s and 30s – a time during which she was a working Hollywood writer for 9 months of the year and a romantically-open world traveler for the remaining 3. She falls in love in Argentina, hooks up in Amsterdam and Russia… and Brazil… and Australia… Any How I Met Your Mother fans in the house? Remember Robin’s trip to Argentina? Newman wrote that storyline. There are  moments of pathos as Newman faces family strife and career challenges and begins to examine what exactly she’s trying to accomplish with her jet-setting life, but ultimately, this is a fun travel+dating memoir that sits in the sweet spot between poignant and lighthearted. Definitely enjoyable.

20 May 2014

the last five

I have been having a lively email exchange with my darling Favorite Former Roommate about contemporary young adult realism. Specifically, what the heck is going on with it. Since grad school spat us both out a few years ago (A FEW YEARS AGO?!! WHAT IS GOING ON? WHAT IS TIME?), we’ve been disappointed by most of our YA reading and have been chatting about why that might be.

It was challenging, however, to even *remember* what I’d read lately, possibly because I am old and senile and read too much so the books start to blend together. Another reason to keep writing about books and not abandon your blog for weeks at a time. Ahem.

So without further ado, I present to you The Last Five Contemporary Realism Titles I’ve read this year, with thoughts included.

The Last Five – Contemporary YA Realism

I’ll Be There and Just Call My Name by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Have I mentioned what an awful, awful Judge-a-Book-by-its-Cover girl I am? Well, it’s true. Much of my book lust is cover-art related. And YA/kidlit covers are just SO GOOD lately, if you haven’t noticed. Now that we’ve forgotten about the 80s and 90s – the Dark Ages of Children’s Book Cover Design – we have entered the much deserved renaissance.

I am starting to wonder, though, if my pernicious YA book-disappointment is also cover-art related. A really lovely book cover piques my attention. A decent sounding premise gets me excited. Then I read a few pages and, oh, the actual *writing* disappoints.

Not the case with these two novels. I swooned over I’ll Be There‘s cover art when it was published in 2011, but I never got around to reading it. When Just Call My Name arrived in my Required Reading docket, I opted to read both back to back. Neither book threw me into fits of joy or whatever, but neither did they disappoint. Sloan writes with a very straightforward tone and her third-person narration dips in and out of nearly every character’s head – very unique and refreshing. The story is romantic, but not swoony-romantic. It’s a love story, but not a story about two characters falling in love. It’s about love in a broad sense – familial love, friend love, romantic love, and how all of that love weaves together in an individual and in a community.And in case that wasn’t enough, there are solid humor and action-type plot lines. Win-win-win.

Fat Boy vs. The Cheerleaders by Geoff Herbach

This was one of my treadmill ebook reads. For that purpose, this book was perfect. The punchy, no-holidng-back voice that I adored in Stupid Fast was back, and the emphasis on plot over prose made for an easy book to follow while one’s head is bobbing up and down for miles.

However, I wasn’t terribly impressed by this book in the whole. It was missing some of the pathos and nuance I found in Stupid Fast. It’s possible I am too old for the high school heist story – the Good, Nerdy Kids vs. the Slimy Popular Kids (and their commanding officer Adults). The Good, Nerdy Kids will win. Naturally. Although some late third act narrative twists were genuinely surprising to me, by that point I was just flipping (digital) pages to get it over with.

Also, if I never read another book where an protagonist’s weight-loss and fitness regime served as a central plot line, that would be just fine.

Afterparty by Ann Redisch Stampler

Anybody remember life before Gossip Girl? Before YA books about reckless-and-rich party girls were a dime a dozen? I don’t really know why this trend is still a trend, but plenty of authors are still riding the Pretty Rich White Girls Behaving Badly wave.

That being said, I enjoyed Stampler’s Afterparty much more than I expected I would. The story is fairly standard: Nice, Normal-ish Protagonist is new to a wealthy private school, makes friends with a Party Girl, and questionable decisions ensue. But Stampler gave her protag, Emma, a good, fresh voice. A unique, fluid voice really goes a long way with me – you can write about some crazy stuff as long as you’ve got a protagonist who tells her own story well. I also liked the way Siobhan the Obligatory Party Girl developed over the course of the book. I haven’t really read enough of this Post-GG sub-genre to make definitive statements, but her character trajectory in the last half of the book was startling and added some narrative complexity to an otherwise straightforward story.

A quick aside, however….

So there’s this thing called The Idiot Plot. Robert Ebert coined the phrase. It refers to any number of storylines where all conflict and tension could be easily resolved if the characters involved would just sit down and have a conversation.

This kind of plotline doesn’t necessarily irk me more than other standard storytelling techniques, but I have to say, Afterparty goes to great, great lengths to keep some of its Idiot Plots riding along. There’s a conflict between Emma and her boyfriend, a misunderstanding that he perpetuates and she knows she should clear it up with him. And the misunderstanding is really so very, very minor. Any self-respecting boyfriend would easily sweep it under the rug. However, that would not a 300+ page book make, so Stampler performs ridiculous narrative aerobics to keep these two characters from actually talking about this issue. This scene probably happened a half-dozen times in various ways:

Emma: “Hey, I really need to talk to you about something.”

Boyfriend: “Hush now, woman. I’m hungry and we should get a pizza instead!”

Seriously, now.

Tease by Amanda Maciel


This is a book about bullying. One might call it a “Problem Novel,” if one was wont to use semi-disparaging, non-specific genre labels from the 1980s. Lucky for Maciel, the problem of bullying is most certainly complex enough to devote a novel to. And I think that’s exactly the strength of this novel – it’s not necessarily about individual characters and their hopes and dreams and motivations. Tease is about a compounding series of decisions and consequences that lead a sixteen-year-old to suicide. The plot is not left in the hands of the characters, necessarily, although Maciel does give her protagonist a satisfactory redemptive arc. The plot is in between the characters actions and their motivations – none of the teens meant to lead a peer to kill herself, but yet all of them, in small or large ways, did just that. Their decisions were not malicious. Their decisions were bred from insecurity, social climbing, and other teen angst that otherwise proves innocuous. Until, of course, it doesn’t.

The characters definitely take a backseat to the conglomerate effects of Bullying. A lot of reviewers and bloggers have called out Tease for featuring some phenomenally unsympathetic characters. I try not to steer my reading experience toward identifying which characters I like or dislike, but reading the first few chapters of Tease was challenging for me just because I am so definitely NOT the protagonist that I almost couldn’t comprehend the story. This is from the POV of the bully, so it’s natural to see a protagonist in a negative light here, but I found her character so young and naive and preoccupied with her own social concerns that it was baffling. But from the eyes of a teen reader, who may be facing these same social concerns to some degree, might our protagonist be read in a more sympathetic light? Am I becoming an old fogue, no longer able to step into the shoes of a teen character who hasn’t been sufficiently “adultified?” My Favorite Former Roommate and I were gabbing about this a little bit. I think it’s normal. Some breeds of YA are more universally appealing than others, and yeah, some YA stories and characters are more adult-y than others. I think what’s important, as adult readers and critics and gatekeepers in general, is that we don’t let this personal inability to sympathize prevent us from reading a book fully and from giving a book credit when it’s due. Sure, this book had a lot of shallow teens who thought of nothing more than boys and partying and what the world owed them. But Tease also provided a truly dynamic, morally ambiguous portrayal of an aspect of high school culture that does exist and should be talked about. Whether or not I wanted to be best friends with the narrator is really besides the point.



01 Feb 2014

more reasons to love fangirl

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl was one of my favorite books of 2013. Along with the rest of the reading public. I know.

Why bother to heap even more praise on a book that’s had plenty? Well, I just re-read it, and there was just so much to love that I didn’t get to tell you about the first time. Indulge me.


Coming of Age… as an adult


Alright. I guess we can talk about New Adult again for a moment. I am still a skeptic of this supposedly burgeoning literary genre. I don’t think it is appropriate or accurate to give every book about an 18-24 year old a particular label. I think genre traditions and definitions run deeper than “age of characters” – slapping on an age-based descriptor regardless of other narrative factors ignores genre traditions and can mislead readers.

Is Fangirl New Adult? Is it Adult? Is it YA? A big part of Fangirl’s wide attention is that it does sit squarely in that area of Adult/YA crossover. Cath is a character with broad introverted, nerdy girl appeal, regardless of the age of said nerd.

But the book’s YA-ness is really hard to deny. What Rowell has done is write a very traditional coming of age romance and set it in the very beginnings of adulthood. Although Cath is a grown up, her story feels about as YA as YA gets.

I would argue that Rowell achieves this in part because she grounds Cath’s story inside of another story – the Simon Snow series. Simon Snow – the focus of Cath’s creative attention for years – is a (meta?) fictionalized Harry Potter. Which is a work of children’s/YA literature, and also a school story. Set against these two touchstones, Cath’s move to college feels more like a move to boarding school than an exodus into adulthood – like she’s moving out of the space of childhood but clearly hasn’t left yet.

The meta-fictional contrast between Hogwarts, Simon Snow, and state college is a unique and ingenious narrative tactic, regardless of what label you want to slap on the book.


Oh, Cath


But what I really think separates Fangirl from the traditions of adult literature is Cath – more specifically, how Rowell lets Cath steer the story.

I have read a handful of books about college students written for an adult market. All of these books have been decidedly about college as an institution, about learning and knowledge and power. About the place of higher education in the world and in the lives of individual students. The characters may be interesting and well-developed, but they also feel a little like pawns in some kind of grander allegory.

Last year I read Rebecca Harrington’s Penelope. I talked a little bit about it in this post. Like Fangirl, Penelope is about a shy, nerdy girl who feels socially awkward while she dive into her first year of college. Like Cath, Penelope faces new social situations, romances, and experiences the triumphs and pitfalls of becoming an independent adult-type student.

Comparing only premise and plot, it would seem that these two books are quite similar. Readalikes, maybe. But I would argue that Penelope the book is not about Penelope the character. Penelope the book is about Harvard. It is about cultural, intellectual, and social capital amongst 18 to 22-year-olds. It is about various collegiate rituals and requirements and how absurd they are when observed from a distant lens. Penelope stands in for any girl, her quirks, traits, and desires tailored to fit the needs of certain metaphors, to elucidate a larger Big Idea.

Fangirl does explore a fair amount of Big Ideas – most of them about art and authenticity and what sacrifices are required to divine out your own passion and abilities at the tender age of 18 – but ultimately, the story is about Cath. It’s not an extended metaphor starring an awkward young coed – it’s a story about a specific awkward young coed with metaphors thrown in for set dressing.

And I think my previous post pretty much sums up why Cath is a character worth caring about. At least if you are an introverted nerd girl. After a recent twitter exchange, it has come to my attention that Cath may in fact be an INFJ. This explains my personal affection toward her – as an INFJ, I feel a special kinship with most of my Myers-Briggs mates.

This has also opened the door to literary Myers-Briggs speculations. This is probably not a particularly useful way to spend one’s critical energy, but I’m afraid once you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole it can be difficult to climb out.


The Craft

Ms. Rowell’s writing is slick. It’s the kind of narrative that almost slips under the story and the excellent dialog – you almost don’t notice it, but you are enjoying it. I feel like some of Ms. Rowell’s critics do not give her adequate credit for her writing chops. It’s like that whole “I don’t want to look like I’m wearing make-up so I will wear seven times as much make-up as anyone else to achieve the all-natural look,” thing. Or watching women’s gymnastics. It takes a lot of skill and a lot of work to make prose read easy.

In Fangirl, Rowell’s tight third-person narrative shows off her skill for the descriptive simile.


Cath put on brown cable-knit leggings and a plaid shirtdress that she’d taken from Wren’s dorm room. Plus knit wristlet thingies that made her think of gauntlets,like she was some sort of knight in crocheted armor.

Cath set the phone on her desk and leaned back away from it. Like it was something that would bite.

But Cath didn’t worry about Reagan, not like she worried about Wren. Maybe because Reagan looked like the Big Bad Wolf – and Wren just looked like Cath with a better haircut.

“You look like you need some fresh air.”

“Me?” Cath gagged on her pot roast sandwich. “You look like you need fresh DNA.”

Reagan wore eyeliner all the way around her eyes. Like a hard-ass Kate Middleton.

Clever, yes. Entertaining, yes. But oh, please do not dismiss these lines as set dressing. Lines such as these channel Cath’s point of view into the third person narration. They capture something about the scene and about Cath’s attitude toward it, and Rowell knows just when to employ one. This is the kind of genius comedic writing I fear my puny brain could never manufacture. This is why Rowell is deserving of her heaps of praise, even though her prose is more straightforward that literary, even if she’s writing love stories.

I could go on. Oh, I could. But we’ve reached 1000 words of Fangirl-love, and guess who just got an e-galley of Landline today. Me. ME. I have got reading to do.

Image credit to the imminently talented Simini Blocker. If you haven’t checked out her work yet, please do. She’s like my patron saint of YA fan art. Run quickly. And while you are at it, hire her to illustrate all the picturebooks ever. This chick is going places.

22 Dec 2013

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

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

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

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

Oh goodness.

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

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

But it’s an uneasy peace.

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

For everyone.


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

When peace is restored to Westeros.

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

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

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

It’s a fixation. It’s a problem.

At this point, it’s a lifestyle.


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