Friday, January 4, 2019

A Couple YA/Juvenile Fiction Selections

I'm still trying to figure out how non-adult books are classified - obviously, there are picture books, but there is also YA (young adult) that seems to be shelved with books like Hatchett that in my opinion are YA, but seem to be read by kids more in the 8-12 rage, which I suppose is considered juvenile fiction.  I don't know, but when categorizing on my blog, I'm probably overly inclusive about what I consider YA...and I'm starting to read more chapter books intended for a slightly younger audience, so I may need to rethink my labels soon.  In the meantime, here are a few fiction reads for the younger set:

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen:  This book was written in 1986, but I never read it or even heard of it as a kid.  As an adult, many people recommended it to me - or suggested that my 7-year-old son read it.  It's the story of a young boy named Brian whose parents have recently separated.  He lives with his mother, who puts him on a prop plane to go visit his father for the summer.  She also provides him with a hatchet, which he initially finds oddly juvenile.  The plane crashes and Brian is the lone survivor.  The book follows his 50+ days surviving in the wilderness - building shelter, finding and hunting for food, repeatedly failing and learning from his mistakes.  There were some basic aspects of this book that I feel make it not quite appropriate for my 7-year-old - namely the reason for Brian's parents' divorce, which centers around an affair that Brian is aware of but keeping secret from his father.  It is a small but recurring part of the story, and not something that Brian himself fully understands, and I think was presented strangely for a reader younger than about ten or so (not that younger readers haven't themselves been children of divorce or can't understand what it means for parents to separate - I just felt the way in which the subject matter was presented was better suited to an older audience).  But, Brian's adventures and the psychological and physical struggles he endures and overcomes are inspiring - especially for my own children who have zero wilderness survival skills, I'd be interested in seeing how they react to this book in the near future.  I was recently in a bookstore and saw a five-book series by Paulsen that follows Brian after this adventure.  These seem like they could be fun - but also a bit scary - I'm keeping them on my son's to-read list perhaps for this coming summer!

Holes by Louis Sachar:  Sachar is one of my son's favorite authors - but for his Wayside Stories from Wayside School series.  Many teacher friends over the years have recommended Holes to me, but I didn't get around to reading it until just recently.  Stanley Yelnats is a young boy with rotten luck.  He's arrested for a crime he didn't commit and sent to a juvenile detention camp where he and the other inmates are forced to dig holes in the blazing heat all day.  Why are they digging and what are they looking for?  The answer brings together Stanley's incredible family history and sets him on a wild adventure.  This book is clever in its storytelling and just a fun read.  I'll be passing it along to my kids soon.

I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez:  This book is definitely YA - with some pretty complex themes about mental illness and identity.  Julia is not her parents' perfect Mexican daughter.  She can never quite do anything right.  So when her perfect older sister is killed in a freak accident, Julia is caught between needing to follow her own plan, and feeling obligated to become the daughter she believes her parents have always wanted.  As Julia navigates her own grief, she learns more about her sister's life - and realizes she wasn't as perfect as she seemed. But what does this mean for her relationship with her parents?  This was a painful read - as an adult reading YA even though I can often feel or understand the intense emotions, I feel like because of the way it's often written things seem overly-dramatic.  I can put myself back in those shoes and think about how I might have felt as a teenager, but as an adult looking back it isn't as emotional.  This book actually made me cry at points, and was quite powerful in its ability to capture the  feelings of being trapped that feel so common for so many teenagers.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Books in a Series

I have a thing for books in a series.  When the characters and story are wonderful, of course, it's nice to be able to keep going.  But, even when they aren't that great, it's really hard for me to just let go - though I was very proud of myself for just saying no to the third book in the Fifty Shades of Grey series.  So, here are a few that brought back some familiar characters and a little comfort - some much more than others:

Inferno by Dan Brown (Robert Langdon #4): Part of the series that started with The Da Vinci Code, these are always good for a quick page-turner and a little mystery - albeit always eventually quite far-fetched.  This time around, Langdon wakes in an Italian hospital with a bout of amnesia.  There is an assassin after him, and he flees with a doctor.  They are forced to solve a series of clues which take them through Florence and stretch their deepest knowledge of Dante's Inferno.  I put this one in the category of "great airplane read."  Entertaining and clever, and worth a few hours to help pass the time.

The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman (The Magician's #3): This series began with The Magicians and The Magician King - both of which I loved.  But, I find with any science-fiction/fantasy book, as the series progresses things tend to get a little out-of-hand, and so it was with this one.  One of the main characters has been cast out of their utopia, and he has to return to his beginnings to figure out what went wrong, and perhaps to strike out on a new utopia, which could mean sacrificing everything his friends are a part of.  While I didn't love this third book - it did make me want to go back and read all three again in quick succession.  I think the story lost some of its momentum between books, which I think could be regained by going back again.  Which I'm sure I will...soon.

The Days of Anna Madrigal  by Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City #9):  I love love love love love this series about friends who make their own family in San Francisco - the series started with the first six books published between 1978-1989 (which I binge read when I discovered the series in college).  It is a wonderful soap-opera set against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic with every relational combination you can think of coming together to live on Barbary Lane and share their lives (and deaths).  In 2007, Maupin published the seventh book, and then the eighth, and now finally the ninth which wonderfully brings so many of the beloved characters back to San Francisco to pay their last respects to Anna Madrigal - the one who brought them all together.  For anyone who loves this series, this is a must-read - to see where the characters end up.  And for anyone who loves soap-operas, colorful characters, and just a lot of fun - I highly recommend this series.  I hope Maupin has a secret tenth book up his sleeve!

The Secret Place by Tana French (Dublin Murder Squad #5):  The books in this series are good for anyone looking for a little creepy mystery.  While they sometimes involve characters you may have met in an earlier novel, each book is a stand-alone story and you don't have to read anything else to follow the story.  This one takes place at a girls' boarding school, as the Dublin Murder Squad re-opens an unsolved murder case.  The relationships among the students - including who actually were and were not friends and enemies - makes for a suspenseful tale full of gossip and intrigue.  I have French's next book in the series The Tresspasser  in my nightstand - I'm a little frightened to read it at night, but eager to get to it!

The Great Alone - Kristin Hannah

I had a difficult time getting into Kristin Hannah's acclaimed novel, The Nightingale.  So much so that despite so many people telling me that it was incredible, I just never finished it.  So when several more people recommended this one to me, I was skeptical to say the least.  But, I figured I'd try it out - and I'm glad I did.  This is one of the best novels I've read in quite awhile.  The Great Alone is the story of a teenage girl named Leni.  Her father has returned from Vietnam, suffering from nightmares and all the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Her mother, desperately in love with her husband is willing to do anything to appease him.  And so, the family moves to the Alaskan wilderness where the father, Ernt, is certain his family can make it out their own without any reliance on the Outside.  The family builds their community in Alaska, but Ernt's paranoia and violence isolate the family more and more.  This was a difficult read given both the actual violence, and the threat of violence always lurking, but it was a definite page-turner.  I enjoyed it so much that it might actually give me the push I need to give The Nightingale another try!

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Eligible - Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld: I'm a fan of Sittenfeld's previous novels, Prep and American Wife.  I'm also a fan of Jane Austen.  So, it made sense for me to pic up Eligible, a modern re-telling of Pride and Prejudice.  I read Pride and Prejudice years ago in college and have since seen several movie and mini-series adaptations.  I love them all.  And yet, I couldn't exactly re-tell the plot to anyone if they asked.  I know there's a bunch of sisters whose annoying mother wants to marry off, and there a rich guy named Darcy who starts out as a jerk, but basically wins over the most clever Bennett sister.  But beyond that, my memory is terrible.  So, this was a nice way to be reminded.  In this version, the semi-prominent country club attending Bennett family lives in Cleveland.  Three of the younger Bennett sisters are still living at home when Mr. Bennett suffers an injury.  Mrs. Bennett, an obsessive shopper, is too consumed with the planning of a charity luncheon to tend to her husband, and so the two older Bennett sisters, Jane and Liz return home from New York.  All sisters are unmarried, and approaching that age.  Mrs. Bennett is determined to marry off her children, and when the country's most eligible bachelor, Chip Bingley returns to town, she has the highest of hopes.  Her meddling is the most irritating, and the two youngest Bennett sisters are so annoyingly crass, it's difficult to believe that people like this actually exist.  Liz herself is so smug and determined to be right that her inability to listen to others and stop making assumptions about every situation (which definitely makes an ass of her and no one else) was incredible off-putting.  It made it quite difficult to understand why any man (or woman) would ever be interested.  And that, is the crux of my problem with this book- and maybe every 19th century Victorian romance out there.  Beyond physical attraction, these characters are all so self-centered and ridiculous that the hopes of pairing anyone up with anyone else is simply inconceivable.  And yet...I do like a seemingly happy ending - no matter how ridiculous.  This was a fast read about a dysfunctional family.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that no matter how banal or trite, Jane Austen knew how to tell a story - and any retelling of her tales is sure to please.

A Few Read Harder 2018 Challenge Selections

At the beginning of the year, I read this article about the Read Harder Challenge, which challenges people to get out of their reading comfort zone and check out some different genres and different authors than they might otherwise gravitate toward.  A few of the categories covered books I'd already picked out to read for the year, but here are a few I probably wouldn't have read but for the challenge, and that's kind of a cool thing (I think!).

Romance by a Person of Color

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon: I'm not too familiar with the Romance genre.  When I think of it, I imagine books with Fabio on the cover, but like any genre, I'm sure it spans a wide spectrum - isn't Pride and Prejudice basically a romance?  I have no idea - but When Dimple Met Rishi was a nice "introduction."  Dimple Shah is headed to Stanford - she has big dreams, including spending her summer at an elite web development program - and not including any arranged marriage.  Rishi is headed to MIT - he's not so sure about the summer program, but his parents have told him that his future bride, Dimple, is set to be there - so he's in!  Of course, the two inadvertently meet, hate each other, find themselves stuck together as partners in the program, and hilarity frustration and love ensue.  I can't say that I loved this book - it was silly and predictable.  But, it was super cute and feel-good.  I do love a happy ending - and seems like this genre is poised to give that to me!

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory:  Ms. Guillory is a local author, so I've seen her book cover around - because I'm a judge a book by its cover kind of person, I was drawn to it.  The book starts out with the implausible scenario of two strangers stuck in an elevator together - and one invites the other to be his date at a wedding set to take place the next night.  She agrees.  Predictably, they attend the wedding together, experience an attraction, but have no idea where to go from there.  Both individuals seem to have an incredible amount of relationship baggage, destined to sabotage the relationship before it even gets started.  But, of course, they stay in touch and attempt to keep things going long-distance.  Ups and downs and miscommunications follow, as they are both forced to discover what really matters.  A perfect romance!  Again, as with When Dimple Met Rishi, it was predictable, frustrating, and ultimately happy.  Ms. Guillory has another book out (The Proposal) and one on the way in 2019 (The Wedding Party) and both have been added to my to-read list.

A sci-fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author: The Power by Naomi Alderman

I recently re-read The Handmaid's Tale, and found myself so infuriated - not simply because of how infuriating it is to consider the women in that novel, but because there are too many parallels to the actual world we live in - with men in power attempting to control the bodies and minds of women.  So, I think I welcomed with open arms the concept in The Power which is that girls and women suddenly wake up one day with the power to generate electricity from their bodies - with differing abilities to control their power - they have the unexplained and unpredictable ability to harm and control others (read: men).  The book then follows several characters as they navigate this strange new world - one that flips gender norms, and of course, maybe gives men just a glimpse at the actual world that many women live in every day.

A celebrity memoir: Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

Shonda Rhimes is the incredibly successful mastermind behind television shows like Grey's Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder.  Before reading this, I didn't know a thing about her - except my assumption that she must be an incredibly talented and driven individual.  After reading this book, it is clear that these things are very true - but the impetus of this book is the fact that Ms. Rhimes is a self-proclaimed introvert.  Despite her presence in the media industry, she herself has no desire to go to elaborate Hollywood functions or to socialize at the many many events she is invited to each year.  And so, she found herself repeatedly saying "No" to people who asked her to attend such events.  But then, she decided that for one year she would actually say, "yes," to everything that came her way and see where life took her.  Rhimes has a lovely sense of humor and while this isn't the best written book out there, it is a really interesting look at how a seemingly small shift in perspective can dramatically change one's entire outlook on life.

A one-sitting book: We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie is an absolute genius. I have read and loved all her novels, and saw this one on display at the library.  We Should All Be Feminists is adapted from her TED Talk (, and is her call to arms - and argument for why, indeed, we should all be feminists.  She talks about her own experiences in Nigeria, in the United States, and abroad, to highlight the existence and the dangerous power of sexual politics in our time.  In speaking of the institutional sexism that pervades nearly every area of our lives, she makes the obvious, but not so widely accepted, case that we are all harmed by the existence of these systems in our world.  And that we all need to take steps to eradicate them.

Non-Fiction Round-up

I don't think it matters how many times Malcolm Gladwell's theories are debunked as based on junk science, I think I'll always just keep coming back to his very accessible, seemingly logical books and essays.  In David and Goliath, Gladwell confronts the idea of what being an underdog really means.  What is it about those who suffer setbacks that allows them to persevere and defeat the giants?  Through his engaging storytelling, Gladwell forces the reader to redefine assumptions and situations - and to see the world and who has the advantages and disadvantages in a whole new light.  While parts of the book are repetitive or obvious, this was still an enjoyable (and relatively quick) read - particularly good for reminding yourself that things do not always have to be as they seem, and that in every seemingly bad situation, there is an opportunity.

Free to Learn by Peter Grey - While my children attend a mainstream public school, I am very interested in homeschooling, unschooling, and non-traditional forms of education.  While I doubt I will ever choose one of these paths for my children, it's always nice to be reminded that things can (and often should) be done differently, and that I need to constantly be thinking about the differences among my children and their different learning styles - when approaching what they're doing in their own classrooms, and in supplementing their educations at home.  Free to Learn explores ways to support and foster children's innate desire to learn.  In its criticism of mainstream education (so-called "imprisonment schooling"), it can be a bit off-putting, but I generally appreciated the philosophy of encouraging children to take control of their own education.

All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior attempts to explain "the paradox of modern parenting" - how can it be that our children are the center of our worlds, that we wouldn't trade them for anything, and yet...

I'm not one for parenting books in general - though I do tend to read quite a number of them.  I don't think that parenting or parenthood is a one-size-fits-all affair, but I do think that we all have so much to learn from others who have been there- in our shoes, in similar shoes, and those who just want to dispense some advice.  Everything to be taken with a grain of salt, and something to be learned from every situation.  I liked this book for its acknowledgement that despite what people say about enjoying every moment because it all goes so fast-  it's okay to have those moments where it's really not fun, and that you really just need to get through.  But, that it's also always important to take a step back and acknowledge the joy that really does come from being a parent and being able to watch the lives of some pretty extraordinary people in your midst.

Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin:  I've been a fan of Gretchen Rubin since I read The Happiness Project roughly ten years ago.  I think she has a lot of helpful things to say about really understanding one's own motivations and goals, and doing what it takes to achieve them (in a way that also brings and maintains happiness).  Better Than Before chronicles Rubin's journey in developing habits -based on her particular personality type - and seeing how effective she can be in sustaining long-term change in her life. By using her own life - her successes and failures - as examples, it is easy for the reader to become inspired to create their own lasting change based on their own idiosyncratic personalities.  Gretchen Rubin's new book Outer Order, Inner Calm about decluttering comes out later this year.  I have a feeling it may be repetitive of so much else that is out there right now on this topic, but I'm looking forward on her take given all the research that she has already done on how and why people behave the ways that they do.