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 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, YA

Five Minute Book Review/Prescription: My Lady Jane

my-lady-janeSometimes you just need a distraction. And that is exactly where I found myself when I picked up My Lady Jane by Brodi Ashton, Cynthia Hand, and Jodi Meadows.  Having just started and abandoned no less than three other books (which shall remain nameless!), I was starting to feel desperate.

I was definitely attracted to this book when I saw the cover. But when I read the description, I was ALL IN.  My Lady Jane tells an alternate version of the fate of Lady Jane Grey, who was, in actual history, queen of England for nine days before being beheaded by Mary Tudor, aka Bloody Mary. In this retelling of  Tudor history, the three authors have followed the facts to a certain point before tossing it aside and writing their own, happier ending for Jane Grey.

This in itself is an intriguing and fun idea, but the authors have taken the idea even further out there, by reimaging the struggle between Catholics and Protestants as one between Edians and non-Edians. What, pray tell is an Edian? Edians are humans who have the ability to turn into animals. Some Edians have masterful control and can change at will, whereas others experience their “change” as more of a curse, and have no power over when it comes or goes. Some people in England find Edians to be abominations and would like to see them all rounded up and imprisoned or killed. Others, Lady Jane Grey included, would like to see a hospitable and collaborative relationship between Edians and Non-Edians.

The authors have made no secret of how much fun they had writing this book, and it is evident in the prose. Readers are treated to three points of view in alternating chapters: Lady Jane Grey’s, her new husband Gifford Dudley’s (an Edian who spends his days as a horse) and the sickly teenage King Edward Tudor’s. All three are an absolute delight to spend time with and their anachronistic, hilarious, sarcastic and sweet world view will make you love them. Indeed, I was so sad to reach the end of this book. In all honesty, I could not love it enough.

Prescription: The perfect read for anyone looking for something humorous, romantic and  good natured, but still steeped in historical references. Will also appeal to fans of Tudor history in general, even if everything you know about the Tudors you learned from the Showtime series, as I did.

Posted in Five Minute Book Prescriptions

Five Minute Book Prescription: Something In Between by Melissa De La Cruz

something-in-betweenWith the recent actions on immigration by President He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, I keep thinking about Something in Between,  Melissa De La Cruz’s excellent and timely novel about an overachieving high school senior who discovers that her family is undocumented. Eighteen-year old Jasmine de los Santos has worked  hard throughout her school career to ensure that she will get into the  best college.  A nearly perfect student and the captain of her cheerleading team, Jasmine wins a coveted national scholarship and can’t wait to share the news of her achievement with her Filipino immigrant parents. Only, they seem less than pleased to hear the news. In fact, they seem crushed. Turns out, Jasmine and her entire family are undocumented. Her parents came to the U.S. with legit work visas, but did not leave when they expired. Jasmine has no social security number and is therefore unable to redeem her scholarship.

What’s worse, her family is in imminent danger of being deported if they are discovered, or if her father gets pulled over while driving. Jasmine is in shock. And to top it all off, she has just met a cute new boy whose father  happens to be a Republican Congressman dead set on crushing an immigration bill that would give her family a path to citizenship.

With all of these these things swirling around, Jasmine is forced to re-examine her life and goals. She must decide what steps to take and how to take them. Melissa De La Cruz does has written an excellent character in Jasmine, whose thoughtful, compassionate and level headed decisions make her sympathetic, relatable and admirable. De La Cruz expertly balances the drama of a teen romance with the practical concerns of a family in crisis.

A great read for anyone interested in, or even going through an immigration crisis of their own. Would also make a great read for someone who lacks sympathy and understanding of the plight many illegal immigrants with families. The Trump administration has a tendency to paint “illegal immigrants” as dangerous criminals, which is completely untrue and dangerous. Something in Between does a fabulous job of portraying a complex and difficult reality that many families are facing right now. Highly recommended.

 

Posted in Five Minute Book Prescriptions

Five Minute Book Review: The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle

accident-seasonI started reading this book from my library’s digital audiobook collection mostly because it was immediately available and I needed something to listen to right away! Turns out, it is a story that hits so many of my literary sweet spots. Read by excellent Irish narrator Colbie Minifie, this eerie story follows the lives of one family who, every October, are mysteriously afflicted with what they call “the accident season,” in which family members are subject to injury and disaster. From minor bumps and bruises to fatal car accidents, the accident season wreaks havoc physically and psychologically.  This year, 17-year old Cara is particularly anxious as she investigates why a missing classmate has been showing up in the background of every photograph she takes with her phone. Dark family secrets and clues to the origin of the accident season will rise to the surface. Spooky, atmospheric and overflowing with lush prose, this book will transport you to the cobblestone streets of Dublin, broken down houses in the countryside, and the chilling quiet of an Irish forest. Fanastic!

Posted in Five Minute Book Prescriptions

Five Minute Book Prescription: All we Have Left by Wendy Mills

all-we-have-leftThere are several new books for young people out about September 11 this year. Incredibly, this is the 15th anniversary of that terrible day. The significance of what happened that day is different for kids, who weren’t yet born but have grown up in the world it created. Wendy Mills’  All We Have Left is a sad, intense and action-packed read for kids about September 11. The story is engagingly told through a split narrative.

In 2001, 16 year old Muslim teenager Alia lives in New York City, where she dreams of being a comic book artist. Proud of her faith, but unsure whether or not she will wear the hijab (her mother chooses not to and has left the choice up to her), Alia struggles with being herself  and balancing both her parents expectations and desires for her and her own hopes and dreams. In other words, she is a typical teenager girl.  Until September 11. After an argument with her parents, Alia impulsively decides to visit her father at work, where she can talk to him more. His work? Inside an office near the top of the twin towers.

In 2016, Jesse is a troubled teenager girl whose brother died in the attacks on September 11.Maddeningly, his family has no idea what he was doing in the towers that day. Since his death, when Jesse was only a toddler, her family has been slowly unraveling. Her father drinks too much and yells at the news on TV, distorted with rage and pain over the loss of his son. Her mother soldiers on, seemingly oblivious to the disorder at home and frustratingly absent when Jesse needs her the most. Jesse gets wrapped up with a group of hateful kids who spend their evenings tagging local businesses and landmarks around town. After a split second decision to help them deface a new Muslim Peace Center in town, Jesse finds herself in BIG TROUBLE.

And so the story goes. Alternating chapters tell of Alia’s harrowing experience inside one of the towers on the day of the attack and Jesse’s rapidly disintegrating home life and fallout from a foolish act. At the center of the story is a mystery. As she fights her way out of the towers, Alia has a companion, a blonde, blue eyed boy who just happens to be Jesse’s lost brother.  What was he doing there ? Will Alia make it out alive? Or will she die along with Jesse’s brother?

This was a truly great read that really picks up in pace as you read it. In the beginning, it feels a lot like any other teen story. The setting and the problems are familiar. But as the action unfolds and the characters’ backgrounds are revealed, you will find yourself more and more invested. Wendy Mills does a wonderful, sensitive and nuanced job of portraying a difficult subject matter. You will feel for Jesse, despite her poor decision making and Mills does a fantastic job exploring her confused, complicated emotions about September 11 and what might make a young person participate in a racist act. Similarly, Alia is an incredible likable character who you will love spending time with . It was a pleasure to read about some of the customs and beliefs of  Islam through her wonder-filled voice.

I started the book late Friday night and finished it Sunday morning with a cup of coffee and a good cry.  Despite the teen protagonists, the language and interaction between them is mild, making this a perfect read for middle school and up.

Prescription: A worthy addition to the growing canon of 9/11 literature and a story that kids will relate to. With all of the anger-fueled hate and misunderstanding still broiling in this country, All We Have Left, feels powerful and relevant.

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Don’t overlook the noble audiobook! Enliven the mundane aspects of your life with a good listen.

For a lifelong voracious reader, I  came to audiobooks very late. I always assumed that audiobooks, no matter the story, would be incredibly dull, with some lackluster voice droning in my ear. Reading a story was my job! My activity! Boy, was I ever wrong about that. I got stuck in a rather long commute a few years back and grew sick of sitting in traffic. One can only take so much NPR and even my music collection grew tiresome after a while. Since I was working in a library, I spent a lot of time shelving audiobooks. I decided to pick up Little House in the Big Woods, just to see what it was like to revisit those old, beloved stories. Friends: It was a revelation. Audiobook narrators are actors more than anything — a very important detail I failed to realize. Stories are conveyed with emotion and range, the narrators do voices and there are even occasional musical accompaniments and sound effects.  Audiobooks, I realized, are a way for me to inhale even more stories than I already do! And they fill the many hours in my week in which I am doing the mundane chores of everyday life: washing dishes, commuting, folding laundry, even going for a run. The best audiobooks, like the best books, lift you out of your ordinary life and transport you somewhere else for a little while.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t dud audiobooks out there. Like anything, you may have to try a few before you find one that catches your attention and keeps it. Keep in mind that having a library card will help you check out a wide variety of audiobooks without spending a penny. Check out the actual cds or download digital audiobooks to your iphone or smartphone. Digital audiobooks are my preferred method, since they are so delightfully portable and can be accessed anywhere at anytime. If you don’t have a library card, or are very impatient about waiting for things on a hold list, try audible.com. They have great deals and membership plans for audiobook lovers, and you access everything from an app on your smartphone. Here are a few of my favorite audiobooks for your consideration.

City of Thieves by David Benioff

city-of-thievesDavid Benioff, in case you need reminding, is the showrunner for a modest little show you may have heard of called Game of Thrones. He and his partner are responsible for adapting the story and bringing it to HBO. Well, before all that, he wrote a damn good novel. City of Thieves follows two young men, Lev, a Russian-Jewish emigre living in Leningrad, and Kolya, a Cossack soldier. Lev gets arrested for looting the body of an ejected Luftwaffe pilot and Kolya is arrested for deserting his unit. After meeting in jail, the two men are thrown into a surreal journey through Leningrad after a Russian Colonel orders them to find fresh eggs (a luxury in the starving, desperate city of Leningrad) to use for the cake at his daughter’s upcoming wedding. Super-compelling and perfectly paced, this story is great in any format, but the audiobook is enhanced exponentially by the performance of actor Ron Perlman. Perlman, best known for his role on the television series Sons of Anarchy, brings a delicacy and a gravity to the story and turns an otherwise really good book into an addicting good book. You will want to suspend everything else you are doing just to keep listening.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Oh, Shirley Jackson, no one does creepy like you. This much loved story follows the shunned Blackwood family, who live in a large, isolated house set outside a village. The story is narrated by 18-year old Mary Katherine, “Merricat”, who lives with her older sister Constance and her ailing Uncle Julian. The reader/listener will quickly surmise that all is not right with Merricat, we have always lived in the castlewho looks upon the world with suspicion, hatred and a quick and vicious violence that cuts into her narrative when you least expect it. Through Uncle Julian’s ramblings and Merricat’s scattered comments, we learn that six years earlier, the rest of the Blackwood family was poisoned at dinner, by arsenic hidden in the sugar bowl. Constance, who didn’t sprinkle “sugar” on her dessert blackberries,  was tried and acquitted for the murder, but the whole town remains suspicious of her. Things unravel slowly, and the unreliable Merricat keeps you guessing in this exciting, twisted story. The audiobook narrator, Bernadette Dunn, has the perfect voice for every character and you will completely forget that you’re listening to one person. This tale, with its creeping suspense and growing paranoia, works well in the audiobook format, as your mind will race around trying to solve the mystery and  won’t have time to wander.

Longbourne by Jo Baker

LongbourneLongbourne is the story of Pride and Prejudice told from the point of view of the household servants. The idea is brilliant,  but I was skeptical of Baker’s ability to pull it off. She does, though, and the result is mesmerizing and also possibly more romantic than Pride and Prejudice. The audiobook narrator, Emma Fielding, takes you through the rhythms of the servants’ days, the endless chores and exhaustion they face, with a kind of resigned, wistful voice that feels true. You will find yourself completely drawn in, lulled into the quiet intensity of the characters’ fervent but necessarily muted emotions. This particular story would be perfect listening material for a day on your own. Try it as you stroll down a city street or a country lane, or even while sitting peacefully at the beach, starting out at the sea.

Far Far Away by Tom MacNeal

A fairy tale for big kids and grown ups,  MacNeal’s audiobook has all of the creepy appeal and suspense of the original Far-Far-Away-Tom-McNealGrimm’s tales. Set in a small town called Never Better, teenager Jeremy can hear voices of the dead. With a tough home life and a reputation as an outsider in the town, Jeremy’s only solace is in the company he keeps with the ghostly voice of Jacob Grimm–one half of the famous brothers who collected fairy tales. Jacob tries to protect Jeremy from a vague evil he is aware of between the world of the living and the dead, but his influence can only go so far. Jeremy befriends a local girl named Ginger, which in turn sets off a strange and twisted turn of events involving a mysterious local baker. This book works well as an audiobook narrated by the remarkably talented W. Morgan Shepard. Shepard expertly performs a wide variety of voices, from the wistful Jacob Grimm, to the teenage wonder of Jeremy and Ginger, and finally, the strange and alluring accent of the swedish baker whose constant greeting of “Halloa! Is it not a great day to be alive?” will stay with you for months after you finish reading this haunting and utterly engrossing story.

Beauty Queens and The Diviners by Libba Bray

beautyqueensLibba Bray’s two novels work so perfectly as audiobooks that you might wonder if they were written for that purpose. Beauty Queens tells the story of a group of teenage contestants in a beauty pageant whose plane crashes on an island. All of the various personas they have carefully constructed come tumbling down as they struggle to survive. If it’s not obvious already from the plot, let me make myself very clear: This story is hilarious. Over the top, out of control, laugh-out-loud hysterical. Libba Bray herself narrates this one and she does a different distinct accent for each and every character.  Enjoy, but fair warning: prepare to laugh out loud, no matter where you are — a crowded train, a sidewalk, etc.

The Diviners, another lengthy novel by Libba Bray, is a very different story, set in 1920s New York City. Featuring a wide cast of diverse characters, The Diviners mines the mystery of an evil presence wreaking havoc in the city and committing occult-divinersinspired murders. January LaVoy, a stage and film actress, narrates this thrilling tale with such awe-inspiring range, that you will find it hard to believe that only one person is doing the many voices. The combination of a great story and an outstanding narrator make this audiobook can’t miss. The Diviners is just as scary as Beauty Queens in hilarious. I dare you to listen to this by yourself while driving or walking alone at night and NOT find yourself completely spooked.