Posted in Five Minute Book Prescriptions, Romance, YA

Five Minute Book Review: Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett

Alex, ApproximatelySometimes one needs to relax and unwind and be carried away on a light breeze of someone else’s problems–someone else’s not-too-big-to-be-overcome problems, that is. For me, this is what a perfect escapist read is: good writing, good story, minor issues and a tidy little ending. I use these kind of stories for palate cleansers in between heavier books and for days where I don’t want to be disturbed or sad (birthdays, holidays, vacation). So when I read about  Alex, Approximately in several review journals, where it received lots of good reviews, I mentally filed it away for a day that I would need it.

That day, it turned out, was this past Saturday, during my Birthday weekend. It was a warm and sunny day, one of the few we’ve had this season, and I just wanted to relax on the porch with a book. Alex, Approximately, turned out to be the icing on this relaxing cake of a day. Described as a kind of YA version of You Got Mail, this delightful teenage romp follows 17-year old Bailey “Mink” Rydell, as she moves across the country to live with her Dad in an idyllic California coastal town. Bailey is a classic movie buff and has made online friends with a fellow movie buff named “Alex,” who also happens to live in this idyllic coastal town. Unsure whether she is ready to tell this online person that she has moved close by,  the guarded and (literally, it turns out) gunshy Bailey decides to scope him out in person before revealing herself as his online friend. He could be a creep for all she knows! As you can imagine, hijinx ensue as Bailey quickly falls for her cocky, handsome surfer boy coworker.  I’ll let you fill in the You’ve Got Mail parallels for yourself.

I fully expected the usual romantic comedy plot line of meet cute, misunderstanding/breakup, resolution/reunion. While some of the usual tropes exist in this sweet story, it features an edge and a depth that I didn’t expect. Both Bailey and her love interest have a traumatic experience in their past that keeps them from being completely straight forward with each other and others. And a troubled local teen with a serious drug problem frequently shows up to bring real menace to their otherwise idyllic life. Still, Bennett has written an entirely pleasurable story that will keep you interested, invested and most importantly, distracted. I was sad to see it end!

Prescribed for: Anyone in need of a sweet pick-me-up of a story who doesn’t mind teen drama and perspectives. And all YA fans.

Posted in Inbox / Outbox

Inbox/Outbox: My Week in Reading / Listening / Watching

It’s been a full few weeks of work, family life, and of course, reading, listening, and, occasionally, when I can sneak it in, watching!  I’ve decided to start including blurbs about my favorite podcasts, music, movies and TV because they tend to compliment what I’m reading.

OUTBOX: Just Finished.

Simon vs the homosapiens agendaAudiobook: Simon Vs. The Homosapien’s Agenda by Becky Albertalli. Read by Michael Crouch.

I just loved this story so damn much. It’s hard to convey the way I felt these characters in my heart, but I’ll try. Fifteen-year old Simon Spier has been exchanging emails with a mysterious boy called “Blue,” whom he met through his school’s Tumblr page. Their true identities are unknown to each other, but they confide their deepest fears and concerns and eventually, their feelings for each other. Both are gay but not out to anyone but each other… until Simon slips up and leaves his email open one day, and a classmate who sees his emails with Blue threatens to out him unless Simon helps him get closer to a girl he likes. The friendships and characters in this book are so well drawn and so emotionally satisfying. I love Simon’s relationship with his family, his friends. I love how he relies so heavily on music to get him through the rougher patches of his life. The whole experience of listening to this audiobook was like watching a John Hughes movie. Wonderful wonderful wonderful.  And it is being made into a movie as we speak! So excited.

big little lies tvTV Show: Big Little Lies on HBO.

This was definitely worth the wait. Although there were a few changes to the story that I had trouble with (Madeline’s affair), I was ultimately very satisfied. Each character was perfectly cast and every single woman involved gave an amazing performance. The men were alright, too. Everyone has been talking about how great Nicole Kidman was in her portrayal of Celeste, and it’s true, she was sensational. But I would just like to point out that Nicole Kidman has ALWAYS been sensational. Did you see The Hours? I mean, come on. She takes on such a wide variety of interesting characters and refuses to be type cast. I really admire that. Anyway, Big Little Lies was great! I’m sad it’s over.

Books: I was swamped with a box of books to review for The Horn Book Guide and didn’t get in much pleasure reading for the past few weeks.

INBOX: Currently Reading / Listening

princess xI am Princess X by Cherie Priest.

I kept coming across this book at the library and was very curious about it based on the cool cover. When I finally picked it up and brought it home, I realized that the story was just as cool and unique. After sitting out gym class together in 5th grade, two girls become best friends and co creators of an imaginary character named Princess X. Libby draws the pictures and May tells the stories. Then Libby dies in a tragic car accident, and May is left sad, lonely, and an outcast once again. Then one day, a few years after the accident, Libby starts noticing Princess X stickers all around Seattle, where she spends summers with her dad. Then she finds a website: http://www.IamPrincessX.com, on which an elaborate web comic has been written…one that begins with the story of a girl who seems to die in a tragic car accident but has actually been captured by a deranged man. May is transfixed with curiosity and hope. Could Libby be alive? With the help of a teenage computer hacker who lives in her building, she dives head first into an absorbing mystery and search for her lost best friend.

This story is utterly original and compelling. Readers get May’s narrative as well as full panels of the I am Princess X web comic. I’m halfway through and desperate to have more time to read…

Podcast: S-Town

I finally gave in and started listening to S-Town, the hot new podcast from the creators of Serial and This American Life. Everyone is talking about this podcast right now, and I decided I needed to jump on it while I was in between audiobooks, before someone spoiled the ending for me. I can’t say much of what it’s about without giving away too much already. I’m three episodes in (there are 7), and it feels like a modern day Flannery O’Connor story crossed with William Faulkner. A southern gothic tale filled with (mostly) unsavory characters and mysteries.

Up Next

Books: So many books. So little time. Seriously, it’s a problem. I have several ARCs that I’ve been approved for through Edelweiss, that I really need to read. They include I Liked my Life by Abby Fabiaschi, The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli, Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng and Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy. So many!!! We are going on vacation for four days next week. It will be a glorious weekend on the beach in Florida (hopefully) with my whole extended family present. I’m bringing along a loaded Kindle and hoping to power through a lot of those books.

TV Shows: I’m going to finish up The Crown on Netflix, which we watched half of and start 13 Reasons Why, also on Netflix, which is an adaptation of one of the very first YA novels I ever read.

And that’s me! What about you? Please tell me what you’re reading and watching. I really want to know.

 

Posted in Five Minute Book Prescriptions, YA

5 Minute Book Prescription: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

THUGThis book has been blowing up all over social media, and with good reason: it is, simply put, essential. The fact that this is Angie Thomas’s debut novel is so exciting and wonderful because if this is what she can do on her first go, then wow, are we in for a treat.

The Hate U Give tells the story of high school student Starr Carter who feels divided between two identities: the Starr who goes to an exclusive, mostly white boarding school several towns away, and the Starr who lives in a poor neighborhood with bars on the windows and parties that end with gunshots. One night, leaving one of those parties with her childhood best friend Khalil, Starr watches as a police officer shoots and kills her friend during a routine traffic stop.  Traumatized, heartbroken and confused about the reluctance of the authorities to charge the police officer whom she feels murdered her friend in cold blood, Starr’s world is turned upside down.

Sure the premise alone is interesting, but it’s the clear, engaging writing that makes this book so memorable. Yes it is heartbreaking and infuriating and all too familiar, but it is also funny and warm and dead on in its portrayal of family life. Carter also manages to nail her description of and interaction with both privileged white people who want to understand and privileged white people who don’t want to understand. Everyone in Starr’s life is so interesting and complex and well drawn, you will feel like you know them. When the story finally ends, you will be sad to leave them, as I was.

Prescription: Everyone who lives in this country should read this book. It would be particularly effective, however, for people who just don’t understand why people are angry when an unarmed black person is shot by the police. Anyone who doesn’t understand the “Black Lives Matter” movement and why it deserves our attention should read this book. But also: it’s just a damn good story, no matter what your beliefs are. #readitnow!

Posted in Inbox / Outbox

Inbox/Outbox : My Week in Reading

I had another busy week, and then I had a cold, and well, I am so lazy when I have a cold. I didn’t do a whole lot of writing, but I did keep reading. Here are the books I am currently reading (Inbox)  and the books I just finished (Outbox). And thanks to Book Riot for giving me the idea for this column.

Currently Reading (Inbox)

See you in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng 

see you in the cosmosHonestly, when I first started reading this, I found the voice of the 11-year old narrator a bit precious and I almost abandoned the book. I persisted, however, and MC Alex grew on me. The story follows Alex as he and his dog, Carl Sagan, travel to a rocket launching festival. Inspired by his hero Sagan, Alex has been using his ipod to record and capture information about life on earth  to send to other life forms through his rocket. More than a few surprises and changes of plan occur as Alex forges a makeshift family for himself wherever he goes. I have a few quibbles, mostly surrounding the intended audience, but overall, I am enjoying it. More later.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tabir 

ember in the ashesI have been waiting for this audiobook from the library for months! It is finally here, and I can’t wait to start listening. I have heard from several sources that the audio, in particular, is really well done.One devoted audiobook listener even referred to it as her “favorite audiobook ever. ” I will keep you posted! I’m starting this on my work commute tomorrow.

 

 

Books Finished (Outbox)

My Diary from the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson.

my diary from the edge of the worldGracie Lockwood lives in the world we know, except for one thing. And warning: it’s a big thing: Mythical creatures like dragons, mermaids, ghosts, and sasquatches exist. Dragons are migratory creatures that fly south every year, disrupting the life of everyone on Earth to the point where vast underground tunnels and travel systems have been built so that people can function when the dragons are moving. This is just one of the fascinating and fun to read details provided by Jodi Lynn Anderson. In this alternate world, black clouds come for people when they die. When a black cloud shows up on Gracie’s street, and it becomes apparent that it’s headed their way, Gracie’s family decides to run. But can anyone really outrun a  black cloud?

I really loved this book. The plot is ambitious and not without its problems, but it was so fun to read and emotionally resonant. I highly recommend it.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

big little liesYes, I know. Everyone and their mother has read this book. I was one of the last to pick it up! My opinion? So much fun. The story centers around a group of mums in a small, idyllic beach community in Australia and the tension caused when one kid accuses another of strangling her on the first day of school.

Liane Moriarty has a real gift for effortless, juicy prose and well drawn characters. I completely understand her appeal. Definitely worth reading!

What She Knew by Gilly Macmillan

What she KnewI don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I keep choosing mystery/thriller titles that seem to center around missing children. This is the third missing kid book I have read in a year. Single mum Rachel lets her son run ahead of her a bit on their regular walk in the woods and he disappears. We get her perspective as well as a detective’s who is assigned to the case.

I listened to this one on audio and, though I hate the sensationalistic title, I thought it was very well done. Two different readers (both English) read the two main perspectives in the story and it moved along very quickly. I even spent a few hours ignoring my family this weekend so I could finish it!

Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George
Tuesdays at the CastleI was first drawn to this book because of the beautiful, appealing cover. In paperback, it is one of those smooth, glossy covers that I find irresistible. (I know: Nerd Alert!)  I assumed it was a great pick for the K-2 set, but was delighted to find that it was actually much more complicated. Princess Celie lives in an enchanted castle with a mind of its own: every Tuesday, it grows new rooms or a new staircase, sometimes even a new wing. When Celie and her siblings suddenly find themselves threatened by usurpers, Celie must use her extensive knowledge of the castle to save everyone. Lots of fun and a great choice for young fans of palace intrigue and smart, strong female heroines.

That’s me. What about you? What are you reading?

Posted in Five Minute Book Prescriptions, YA

5-Minute Book Prescription: #ProtectTransKids or, Try a Little Empathy

When it comes to the experience of Transgender kids and which bathroom they should be allowed to use, I often hear people say, in an exasperated way, “What is the big deal with bathrooms, anyway? ” and “I don’t care if someone’s trans, I’m just tired of it being in my face all the time.”  In addition to making me grit my teeth, and clench my fists behind my back, this kind of sentiment crushes my soul a little bit. Folks, the issue is so much bigger than bathrooms. The bathroom thing is really just a symbol for a larger movement toward acceptance and understanding.

I get that it can be hard to understand the transgender experience, especially if you don’t know anyone who is transgender or gender fluid. But why not try to understand?  Books, as I’m sure you expected me to say, are an amazing resource for encouraging understanding. What better way to understand the trans worldview, than by walking in their (literary) shoes?   Here are two GREAT reads, aimed at younger readers but very accessible to adults, about being transgender.

George by Alex Gino

31ff9qjnbnl-_sx329_bo1204203200_When the world looks at George, they see a boy. But in her heart, George knows that she is a girl. She has kept this painful secret for a long time, but when her teacher tells the class that they will be doing a production of Charlotte’s Web, George is determined to play Charlotte. Her teacher tells her she cannot try out for the part, because she is a boy. George and her best friend Kelly, hatch a plan to show the class who George really is.

A very sweet, honest look into the mind and heart of a transgender kid. An ideal introduction to a different life experience for elementary-aged kids and grown ups  alike.

If I was Your Girl  by Meredith Russo
if-i-was-your-girlAmanda Hardy is the new girl in school. Fleeing a violent attack in her hometown, Amanda has come to live with her previously estranged father. With the fresh start, she quickly makes friends and attracts the attention of a few boys, one of whom she immediately falls for. But Amanda has a secret and she is terrified of the violence and hatred that might happen if it comes out: At her old school, Amanda was Andrew.

This is such a beautifully written, suspenseful love story. I really, really loved it. Highly recommended.

Prescription: These two books are essential reads for anyone struggling to understand what the “big deal” is with transgender bathroom rights. Or for anyone curious about what life is like for a transgender person, particularly a child or young adult.

 

 

 

Posted in Five Minute Book Prescriptions

Five Minute Book Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

billyOh. This book. I listened to the entire eleven hours on audio over the course of just a few days. It was wonderfully performed by Oliver Wyman.  Billy Lynn tells the story of a group of soldiers involved in a harrowing, deadly attack in Iraq that happened to be captured on camera by a Fox News crew. Footage from the attack was widely shown on television and the (surviving) members of the Bravo squad are sent home on a whirlwind  “victory” tour.  Focusing on one dizzying stop on their tour, most of the book takes place during a Dallas Cowboys game in which the squad is awkwardly placed at the center of a firework-laden halftime show starring Beyonce.

Author Ben Fountain really drives home his painfully accurate but satirical perspective on America during the mid 2000s, when Bush was still in the White House. Readers observe the absurdity of the soldiers’ experience through the somewhat innocent view of 19 year old Billy, who held his friend’s  head in his lap as he died during the attack. Billy is in a state of flux. Traumatized by the attack and nauseated by the bland, disconnected bullshit of clueless Americans congratulating him on his “sacrifice, bravery, courage,” etc., Billy struggles with the knowledge that, following the tour, they will be sent right back to Iraq.

The most powerful part of this story is Billy’s interaction with his sister, who blames herself for Billy’s presence in Iraq. After a car accident left her face somewhat disfigured, her fiancee broke off their engagement. Protective younger brother Billy attacked the fiancee’s car and, in lieu of jail time, was encouraged to enlist. Billy and his sister’s relationship is so sweet, so dead on accurate, it will absolutely break your heart.

In November, it will be released as a major motion picture directed by Ang Lee. Check out the trailer here.

PRESCRIPTION: The perfect read for anyone who still thinks it was a good idea to invade Iraq and Afghanistan (do those people exist?).  This is a great book to illustrate the futility of war, the irreparable damage it does to those who fight it, and the hypocrisy of rich white men riding high on a false sense of the “glory of war.” You may also want to send it (anonymously) to any Trump supporters in your life. 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Anatomy of a well-rounded summer reading list , or What to read this summer, part 1.

Ah, summer. The ultimate time to lounge around with a book. A book to read while floating in the pool, lying on a beach,  lolling in the grass, lazing in bed. A book for all occasions!

For many people, summer books are synonymous with “beach reads,” aka books that are super easy to get into and to understand and books that will compel you to keep reading. Personally, I prefer more of a mix to my summer reading list: a little historical fiction here, a little juicy romance there, sprinkled with a few diverse titles that bridge many categories. To help get the ball rolling on your summer reading plans, I have some suggestions, arranged by category, for your reading enjoyment. Peruse away, and be sure to let me know what titles worked for you—or didn’t!

True Crime

blackmassirishmobfbiBlack Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr  and Gerard O’Neill

A Massachusetts classic! Before I moved here, I kept hearing the name Whitey Bulger, and I had no idea who this person was or what he famous for, but I had the strange idea that he was some kind of folk hero. Then I read Black Mass.  Friends: Whitey Bulger is no folk hero. He is a bad, bad man. This story is written in a somewhat cheesy crime writer style that occasionally made me cringe, but no matter — the story is crazy enough to forgive that detail and hold your attention from start to finish. Read it just in time for the forthcoming movie, starring Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger. To summarize a very long and detailed story quickly: Whitey Bulger was (is?) an Irish mobster and murdered based in South Boston, who terrorized his community and worked as an informant for the FBI in an attempt to bring down a Mafia family invading his turf. If all of this sounds familiar, the well known film The Departed was a slightly fictionalized version of the Whitey Bulger story. Black Mass is a completely absorbing tale that promises to freak you out if you are unfamiliar with the details and especially if you happen to call Boston your home.

Mystery/ Thriller

We were Liars by E. Lockhart

A breathless read that keeps you guessing from page one and is almost guaranteed to surprise you at the end. I thought we were liarsI had it all figured out for most of the story and turned out to be completely wrong. Cadence Sinclair Easten comes from a big wealthy family who spend every summer on their private island. We Were Liars tells the story of these many summers, dancing around one particular summer that Cadence seems unable to remember. Something happened, but what? Haunting, original and written in E. Lockhart’s lyrical prose, We Were Liars is the perfect book to read on vacation. But make sure you bring a second book, because you will blow through this one in no time.

Memoir

Hole in my Life by Jack Gantos

hole in my lifeKnown to many as the beloved author of award winning books for children, including the Rotten Ralph and Jack Henry series, Jack Gantos lead an incredibly interesting and winding life prior to finding success as a writer. As a teenager living in South Florida and St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, young Jack struggled to find his way and often found himself getting in trouble and failing at school. While in St. Croix, he makes the poor decision to sail a boat stuffed with hash up the East Coast in exchange for $10,000. The trip goes badly and Jack finds himself in jail. What was that experience like and how did it shape him into the Newberry Award winning writer he is today? The excellent Hole in My Life will answer all your questions. Consider listening to this one on audio book, as Gantos reads it himself and his voice and mannerisms are pretty great.

Novels: Super sweet, well done and fun

I’ll Give you the Sun by Jandy Nelson

ill give you the sunTwins Jude and Noah, once inseparable, have become increasingly estranged following the tragic death of their mother in a car accident. Each twin is enmeshed in a web of confusion and excitement as they explore new paths in their lives and come to terms with some buried secrets and revelations about themselves and their lost mother. Told in their alternating voices, both of which soar with a unique and individual style, I’ll Give you the Sun offers a multi-layered story full of empathy and anger and love and fear and, ultimately a sense of happiness and peace. This lovely novel also offers a great perspective on what it means to be an artist.

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

This awesomely eccentric and unique novel brings to mind the world of filmmaker Wes Anderson (The Royal bellweatherTennenbaums, Rushmore) and the quirky charm of the television show Glee. The story takes place entirely within the walls of the grand old Bellweather Hotel. When Minnie Graves was ten years old, she witnessed a gruesome murder suicide at the hotel and has never quite recovered. Fifteen years later, she has returned on the anniversary of the incident, at the same time a big statewide annual music conference is happening, bringing a whole slew of interesting characters to the hotel. Stuffed with an array of fascinating characters, who –wait for it– are unexpectedly snowed in at the hotel, Bellweather Rhapsody unfolds like an old fashioned murder mystery, with plot twists and long-buried secrets and even a showdown involving the hotel pool. Great fun! I highly recommend.

Novels: Fizzy, sexy, fun. No brainers.

Austenland by Shannon Hale

austenlandThirty-two year old Jane Hayes is Jane Austen (and Mr. Darcy) obsessed–to an unhealthy degree, and her loved ones are starting to worry. When her great aunt dies and leaves her an all-expenses paid vacation to Pembrook Park, a British resort where guests live like characters in Jane Austen’s novels, Jane finally has the chance to live her dream. The result is hilarious and sweet and particularly entertaining for all you Colin Firth / Mr. Darcy fans out there. Be sure to watch the equally funny film version after you’ve read the book!

The Royal We by Jessica Morgan and Heather Cocks

A thinly disguised story of Princess Kate and Prince William’s courtship and wedding. Although a few changes haveroyal we been made (our heroine is American, with a twin sister), the story is very recognizable for anyone who knows even a little bit about the adored royal couple in England. This breezy beach read follows the two and their endearing group of friends as they meet at Oxford and proceed to navigate the rough terrain of a paparazzi-stalked relationship, in which appearances are everything. Fun, easy and sure to deliver the ending you hope for.

Novels: Rambling but absorbing family drama with a New England component.

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

maineI am an avowed van of Sullivan, whose book Commencement, I raved about a few posts ago. She is a writer to watch – that perfect mix of absorbing family drama and literary skill. Maine tells the story of four Kelleher women as they navigate their last summer in the family beach house: Alice the matriarch who  reminisces about her past and has trouble accepting all of the changes in her family and the world around her; Maggie, Alice’s 32 year old granddaughter who has just discovered she is pregnant but has yet to tell her sporadic boyfriend;  Maggie’s mother Kathleen, who has abandoned New England for a new life in California;  and Ann-Marie, Alice’s daughter-in-law, an uptight, quietly suffering wife who is determined to keep up appearances. Jumping back and forth in time and moving easily among several narrative voices, Sullivan brings a compelling and sympathetic eye to everyone she writes about. The perfect tale to read whilst lounging nightly with a glass of wine.

Novel: the classic

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

eastofedenThe summer is a great time to tackle a classic and John Steinbeck’s glorious novel East of Eden is a perfect choice, particularly if you don’t think of yourself as a reader of classics. Set in California during the first part of the 20th century, East of Eden follows the intertwined lives of two families–particularly two brothers who are in love with the same woman. Echoing the story of Cain and Abel, this gorgeous novel was the first Steinbeck I’d ever read and I was blown away and almost saddened that I had waited so long to read his work. His sentences are works of art, with each word carefully and exquisitely chosen. You feel like you are reading something profound yet approachable. Steinbeck’s prose goes down easy and you will feel genuine sadness when the story is over, for his writing makes you want to stay in his company forever.