Either the Beginning or the End of the World, Terry Farish

I just checked the archives, and according to my own tags, I only read two YA books in 2016, and two in 2015. I couldn’t believe it was true, so I went to my next source – the Kindle library on my phone – and according to that, I must have mistagged at least one post last year. Depending on whether or not I consider Alan Bradley’s Flavia deLuce series to be YA, which I’m on the fence about, I could possibly count up to three more, but I was still shocked. I consider myself to be both an advocate for and great lover of Young Adult fiction, and yet apparently, I now read more memoirs, biographies, and poetry than I do YA! Without a doubt, mystery and urban fantasy still claim the top spots, but without data, I would have put YA right up there with them. I don’t when that shift started taking place (apparently, sometime in 2014), but it does explain why it took me longer than I expected to get through Farish’s new book.

51rvex-bhvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_She is an absolutely brilliant writer. The poet in her blends stunningly with her work with immigrant and refugee communities in New Hampshire to create stories that are as unique as they are powerful. Her book The Good Braider remains in my top twenty more than five years after reading it. Either the Beginning or the End of the World is no less lovely. Written about a young woman growing up on the New Hampshire seacoast with her father, a struggling fisherman, Sophea finds herself falling in love with a PTSD vet just as her estranged Cambodian mother and grandmother make their way back into her lives.

I have many friends who have made trips over the last decade to Cambodia. To a person, each has told me what a spectacular and heartbreaking country it is – not because of any ongoing poverty, or awe-inspiring landscape, or charming handicrafts made in quaint villages – but because it had an entire generation forcibly and violently disappeared. This had led to an unprecedented sense of community between the people who live there; one man told me that if he was fortunate enough to get a job, it was only right he share that work with a brother or cousin or uncle – if he didn’t, he might have more, but that man would have nothing. Always, he told me, we’d like more work, but it’s better to share what we have.

Farish winds the brutal history of the country into her book with subtle power. Her protagonist is a girl on the brink of independence, a young woman who has little concept of her own past, much less that of an entire people. She has been raised by her American father, but she comes of age with her Cambodian family, and their presence in her life, while often a frustration and betrayal for her, is all the more powerful to me in the America we live in today.

The Bad Decisions Playlist, Michael Rubens

I’ve been a fan of Michael Rubens since my friend Ruby first recommended The Sheriff of Yrnameer four years ago. His first book was a complete win for me – a hilarious space opera that I recommended to all my sci-fi/fantasy loving friends – that I now keep on tap for waiting in doctor’s offices or at the mechanic’s when I need a mental boost.

His second book, on the other hand, a YA novel called Sons of the 613, put me through the emotional wringer. Rubens has a gift for humor, but like most comedians, he is deeply in touch with the raw underbelly of the human experience. Both Sons of the 613 and The Bad Decisions Playlist flirt with laughter, but in the spirit of truthful YA, are grounded in disaster and pain.

25897672This makes sense to me. Adolescence is a shit show, and anyone who claims otherwise just doesn’t remember how hard it is to have everything shaken up and shaken hard all at once. I say this as a person who was well-adjusted, a successful student, close to my parents, and blessed with wonderful friends – I had so much, and yet I remember so much pain. I lost friends to illness and car accidents. I was treated horribly by boys who had seemed so kind. I watched in terrified silence while girls all around me starved and purged and did anything and everything possible to make themselves fit in. I still remember sitting in my psych class one morning and seeing my friend come in late, her head completely shorn of her beautiful black curls – she had spent an hour cutting them off with safety scissors in the bathroom at 7am for reasons too personal to share, even all these years later.

High school is a gauntlet. There’s no free pass. There’s no person pretty enough or popular enough to escape the human condition. And Rubens’ Playlist recognizes that. His protagonist is a stoner with an abundance of talent and a bad attitude – honestly, I hated him for about ninety percent of the book. I kept flashing back to my experience reading The Catcher and the Rye in high school, and how I wanted to punt Holden Caulfield for being such a whiny, narcissistic jerk. I didn’t understand then how deeply troubled and unhappy Caulfield was, or how his perception of the world could be the same as many of my classmates, because for me, adults had always been safe, helpful. For all the pain I felt, I always had the protection of a family who loved and supported me.

I’m not seventeen anymore. I met too many people in college who hurt me and themselves because they hadn’t received the care they needed for mental illness, for abuse they’d suffered, for wounds left too long untended. Then I spent too many years teaching and working with both young children and teenagers not to have seen a whole spectrum of caregiver behavior that floored me with its apathy, ignorance, and anger. I’ve witnessed too much suffering now not to know how or why some teenagers choose to numb themselves with drugs, alcohol, casual sex.

Austin Methune is an ordinary teenager. He’s hurting, he’s lonely and a little lost. He’s struggling with his relationship with his mother, and he doesn’t see the big picture. He cares more about impressing girls than he does just about anything else, and although much of this book is a love story, the part of Austin’s journey that was most powerful to me was his development of empathy and his ability to overcome his own buffoonish self-interest to become a good friend.

I like love stories, but I love friendship. People relying on others, trusting them, becoming vulnerable and allowing them to witness it? That is a love worthy of adolescence. That is a love that is fierce and bright and true. Learning that there’s more to friendship than just showing up to smoke weed and talk about girls is a story worth telling because being a kid is hard, and being a teenager is basically impossible. Friends are the lifeline. They show up for the hard stuff, and they are family if the whole blood relations thing doesn’t pan out.

Rubens gets that. He understands how complicated it is to be a teenage boy – as evidenced in his last two books – and instead of running from that, or sugarcoating it, he embraces it. He says, “It’s ok. I know this is messy, and that you might be a little bit of an asshole, but you’re still loved. Your story is important, and your voice should be heard.”

Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson

My theme this spring has apparently been “start great books I don’t have time to finish,” and Brown Girl Dreaming is no exception. This was a gift from my mother-in-law at Christmas, and although I started it over a month ago, it’s too beautiful to rush through. This hardcover has come with me for a much needed haircut, in the stroller to the park, and out to the grill when I was supposed to be keeping an eye on the food, and that’s saying something since I’m much more accustomed to making use of the Kindle app on my phone.

51-pl9bj7il-_sx331_bo1204203200_Written in free verse, Woodson’s perfectly paced memoir is exquisite. Having put together my own memoir in verse a few years ago, I recognize how difficult it is to make every piece as strong as the previous one, and she puts my meager efforts to shame. How she does it – I can only imagine how much work went into telling this story. How she must have agonized and organized and overwritten in order to eventually prune down to this one exceptional volume.

When it comes to books like this, it’s hard not to get lost in considering the craft behind it. In some cases, peering behind the curtain might mean a book is lacking in some way – the reader is distracted by all the bells and whistles – but in this case, it’s more like examining a butterfly’s wings. The detail makes the experience richer. Woodson’s technique is fascinating, and I want to both bathe in it and somehow make it my own.

Her experiences growing up both in the north and the south also give her a unique perspective on the racial tension that was exploding across the country then, and which we still feel the effects of today. I only hope this book makes it onto reading lists in schools every year, because when I was a child, I had the privilege of thinking this discussion was only a part of history, when my friends and classmates knew differently, from experience.

Woodson writes her truth in a way that is accessible and beautiful. Her story is one children can both enjoy and understand from a young age. For an older audience, it’s a wonderful jumping off point for challenging conversations about discrimination in this country while encouraging hope and love as the bedrock on the path to justice.

South Carolina at War

Because we have a right, my grandfather tells us-
we are sitting at his feet and the story tonight is

why people are marching all over the South-

to walk and sit and dream wherever we want.

First they brought us here.
Then we worked for free. Then it was 1863,
and we were supposed to be free but we weren’t.

And that’s why people are so mad.

And it’s true, we can’t turn on the radio
without hearing about the marching.

We can’t go to downtown Greenville without
seeing the teenagers walking into stores, sitting
where brown people still aren’t allowed to sit
and getting carried out, their bodies limp,
their faces calm.

This is the way brown people have to fight,
my grandfather says.
You can’t just put your fist up. You have to insist
on something
gently. Walk toward a thing

But be ready to die,
my grandfather says,
for what is right.

And none of us can imagine death
but we try to imagine it anyway.

Even my mother joins the fight.
When she thinks our grandmother
isn’t watching she sneaks out
to meet the cousins downtown, but just as
she’s stepping through the door,
her good dress and gloves on, my grandmother says,
Now don’t go getting arrested.

And Mama sounds like a little girl when she says,
I won’t.

More than a hundred years, my grandfather says,
and we’re still fighting for the free life
we’re supposed to be living.

So there’s a war going on in South Carolina
and even as we play
and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.

Because you’re colored, my grandfather says.
And just as good and bright and beautiful and free
as anybody.
And nobody colored in the South is stopping,
my grandfather says,
until everybody knows what’s true.

The Hero and the Crown, Robin McKinley

Although the mother of one of my oldest friend gifted me both The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword for my birthday a few years ago, the books had ended up on my to-read shelf and I’d basically forgotten about them until we hosted our annual pancake party back in February. These books have such unassuming little spines, and although they’re readable in a day (I know, because I read Hero in less), I just hadn’t felt compelled to dive into that kind of fantasy novel until a new friend noticed them and began haranguing me to read them. 

I’m not exaggerating when I say that every time I saw her, she brought up the books, asked me if I’d read them yet, and then demanded to know why I hadn’t. Apparently, they were such a huge inspiration to her when she was a child that it was physically painful to think that I owned the books but hadn’t prioritized them. (And trust me, I understand that feeling – when I recommend a book or series to a friend and find out they haven’t started reading immediately, it bothers me because I know – even if they don’t – just how much awesome they’re missing out on!) We talked about how hard it had been for us to find fantasy novels with strong female protagonists, as well as how rare it was to find books with heroines that were also well written and appropriate for a younger audience. 

I survived by branching out and borrowing just about anything and everything from my local library that featured women, regardless of genre, but for her, that wasn’t a satisfying solution. Consequently, knowing that these two books existed and could be reread whenever she needed a reminder that women could have agency in YA fantasy was a cornerstone to her identity as a reader. 

I’d like to say that these discussions were the only motivation I needed to finally read these novels, but the truth is, I just wasn’t feeling good the other day, and I wanted to lay on the couch and read a paperback. The Hero and the Crown was the right size for the purpose (meaning it wouldn’t hurt my hand to hold it open while I lay on my side trying to will this baby’s feet out of my lungs). I wasn’t particularly in the mood for fantasy, but I figured if I hated it, I could always take a nap instead. 

You may have gathered by this point that I expected, if not to hate it, then at least to be underwhelmed by the book. I’m not sure why I felt I would be (especially given that I’ve enjoyed McKinley’s work in the past), but my expectations were sensationally low. It was with great surprise, then, when I realized a few hours later that I had become so engrossed in the story that I had not only neglected to pick up my prescription from the pharmacy, but also my husband from his train.

It wasn’t that the book was so perfect that I couldn’t pick apart some structural flaws, because I could. Occasionally, I made note to myself of sections where solutions were overly simplified or tasks too easily won; nevertheless, I found myself loving the book. I could completely understand why this story would appeal deeply to a girl on the brink of adolescence. It’s not a love story, although it has some tender moments in it, but is instead a call to arms for a young woman who has felt isolated and estranged from both family and country her entire life. 

Aerin’s successes stem from her willingness to understand and unwind tasks that come much more easily to those around her, as well as from her compassion for those whose suffering is much greater than her own. She’s no saint though, and the story is never cloying, even when it tugs at the heart. Her victories also come with a steep price, a truth we often learn more keenly as adults than we do as teens. 

What stuck with me most though was how pure the experience of reading this book was. I felt transported, not into Aerin’s world, but back to my own youth, to a time when I could enjoy such a story with unbridled enthusiasm. I’m weeks, or maybe even just days away from transitioning from daughter to mother, and yet I can still open a book like this and return to a simpler time. It’s such a peace-filled gift to have discovered on my very own shelf.

For more about Robin McKinley, head here.

Alice in Zombieland, Gena Showalter

I know we’re only two days away from a three-day long weekend, but the last week has been a real slog of post vacation blues. Usually this is a condition I suffer, at most, a day or so, but I have not been able to let go this time. I crave more sun! More family time! More hours to lazily read zombie novels while the waves crash at my feet!

Yes, while on vacation, I finished the two books I’d brought (unheard of!) and ended up downloading one at random from my Amazon wish list. As is the case with many of the titles collected there, I couldn’t remember where I had tagged it from or what it was about; all that mattered was that it looked like just the right level of popcorn fiction for the occasion at hand. Judging by the quick three-day turn around (read exclusively on beaches or while waiting for my turn to scrub sunscreen-cemented sand off), it was the right choice.

Now, this is not one of those books I’d blithely recommend to just anyone. First of all, it has a teen romance element I was neither expecting nor particularly enamored with. Secondly, it’s about zombies. Now, personally, I love a good zombie book. While I often find television and movie depictions of the genre too intense, I find the right novel, laced with a healthy dose of humor, to be intriguing. (For example, I’m more of a Shaun of the Dead fan than The Walking Dead.)

It’s not an area of fiction where I’ve generally found much traction. While vampires, werewolves, and otherworldly spirits have long dominated the shelves, zombies seem to continuously slip by on the reader popularity scale. I think I’ve only reviewed one other even remotely similar title here, and that was a few years back now. I’m certain some of you are genre aficionados and will be able to point me toward some great titles, but it still stands that as far as monster fiction goes, the pickings are rather slim.

It was with great joy, then, that I discovered Alice. Although the character is flawed in some very realistic adolescent ways, the writing was never less than compelling. The pacing was perfect for such a story, and even when I rolled my eyes at descriptions of muscle-bound teenage delinquent zombie hunters, I was also completely hooked. The kids Showalter was describing – burn outs and troublemakers and victims of great tragedies – did seem like the perfect army to fight the undead. They had that ideal combination of ridiculous unflagging energy and young bones that could take brutal beatings and realistically recover in a few days or weeks.

The end result was a guilty pleasure that practically had “vacation reading” stamped on the cover. I didn’t even have to break a sweat to finish this before we flew home, and it was the perfect companion to that brief bit of summer I glimpsed during this interminable winter.


For more about Gena Showalter and the White Rabbit Chronicles, head here.

Girl on a Wire, Gwenda Bond

Normally I don’t get very much reading done in November, but I spent most of the month squeezing chapters of this book into my crazy schedule. I even allowed myself to read it before bed, and while I know many of you are probably avid pre-bed book lovers, I never read then. I’m not one of those people who likes to read until they fall asleep, mainly because I have never in my life fallen asleep reading. I didn’t even fall asleep reading in college when I was doing way too much on way too little sleep. It just doesn’t happen for me. My husband actually tried reading to me from a financial document he was looking over in bed the other night, and after he was done (and out like a light), I was completely wired.

Words do not relax me. Books are much too thrilling. Admittedly, I have the same problem with watching tv or movies. Some of my friends will nap with the television on (or even in the theatre!), but I can’t do it. No matter how tired or sick I might be, stories are exciting, and my brain will not allow me to miss a beat. Let me reassure you, Girl on a Wire did not put me to sleep. Not even a little bit. Every night I had to force myself to turn off the light and put away my kindle. Then I would lay in bed thinking about the story and the characters and how long it would take me to finish if I just kept reading through the night…

It was a vicious cycle. I only allowed it to continue because I didn’t have any other time to read, and Bond’s story was just that good. I’ve never been a huge fan of the traditional circus, but I absolutely love Cirque du Soleil and Cavalia (if you’re not aware, Cavalia is a beautiful horse show; I share their philosophy on training below because I generally do not approve of animals being forced to perform, but it truly was obvious during the show that the trainers adored their horses and treated them gently with love and respect). Bond manages to capture the purest, most exciting parts of those shows in her novel.

I was completely captivated by the young protagonist, a wire walker names Jules, and her antagonist/love interest Remy, a trapeze artist. They both come from old circus families with a sordid rivalry between them (the novel is based very loosely on Romeo and Juliet). The reader travels with them through one season of the circus, and I found myself desperately wishing to see their tricks for myself. Bond creates such an authentic experience of their lifestyle that I both wanted to reach the end of the story but also longed to continue living in their calloused, sparkling, death-defying world just a little longer.

The novel itself is a mystery, an untangling of old hurts on a backdrop of mind-boggling artistic and athletic feats.  For me though, the most satisfying part was not the resolution of that mystery, but the world in which such a story could even exist. The stakes are inevitably high right from the start because each of her performers must constantly push the boundaries of safety and sanity in order to succeed. Even without subterfuge and regrets, every act holds the possibility of disaster, and Bond plays with that tension beautifully. She doesn’t have to overstate the obvious – that this could all end very sadly indeed – because it’s there already in each sharp intake of breath as we watch her balancing act unfold.


For more about Gwenda Bond, head here.


From Cavalia.net: Cavalia’s productions have made an indelible mark on the world of live entertainment with their one-of-a-kind homage to the age-old bond between human and horse. Our equine performers are the heart and soul of every Cavalia show. We are committed to nurturing them and prioritizing their comfort and well-being. The Cavalia approach is based on training methods designed to ensure the horses enjoy training with us and performing on stage. Trainers pay close attention to the horses to ensure that every request is adapted and respectful of what they are ready to offer. Our philosophy is rooted in patience, trust and deep-seated respect. This genuine sense of caring and authenticity is inevitably what resonates with our audiences.

Geography Club, Brent Hartinger

Geography Club was a book I picked up over the summer knowing full well that it was aimed at an audience much younger than me. I’m comfortable reading books meant for YA and even MG audience, and I would say this one falls somewhere in between. It’s definitely a novel I would have picked up and enjoyed in sixth or seventh grade, and as an adult, it’s a little light on the drama for me.

Part of me couldn’t help but feel that it’s a good thing though. The possibility of stumbling across a sweet, coming of age book that deals with the struggle of being a LBGTQA teen is slim. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard kids that I’ve worked with complaining about the fact that all the books that even tangentially represent them end with depression, critical injury, or death. While those books are certainly important (because sadly, those stories do represent the reality for too many teenagers), it is not the only story by a long shot.

When I was in high school, I had at least a dozen friends who had come out, not just to close friends and family, but to the school community. They were as happy as any other kid I knew, which is to say…some of the time life was good, and some of the time, it sucked. Relationships went south. Friendships were built over common interests and then allowed to slip away. Classes were hard or a snap or an escape from a difficult home life. Basically, everyone I knew, regardless of orientation, was just really busy. Rehearsals, soccer practice, Junior World Council, swim meets – endless hours, all filled to the brim.

Looking back, I feel exhausted for my younger self, but in the moment, it was ordinary. And honestly, I was less concerned with who wanted who than I was with meeting deadlines. Well, that’s not true. In locker rooms and green rooms and class rooms, we stuffed our entire social lives into five-minute between-the-bell increments. “Love” could rise and fall over the course of a single day.

This is not to say I don’t expect that relationships were harder for some of my friends than they were for me. I just don’t recall bullying being linked specifically to sexual orientation. I also don’t remember the teen mothers or the hearing-impaired students (our school had inclusive programs for both) being singled out, although it would be impossible to believe it didn’t happen. To me though, it seemed like bullying was targeted at a certain type of kid, a person who, through an unfortunate combination of circumstances, was an easy victim; in Geography Club, that kid’s name is Brian Bund.

While it’s critical to have stories about the Brian Bunds of the world (he’s actually my favorite character in this book), I also like finding a novel that’s focused less on the more on the ordinary foibles of adolescence. Yes, Russel Middlebrook is a gay teenager struggling with the decision to come out, but he’s also casually cruel in order to protect himself. He’s a clueless jock, and he’s a guy dying for acceptance when the only thing he believes sets him apart is also the thing he fears people knowing.

When it comes to deciding what sort of person he’s going to be, Russel has to choose between remaining silent in the face of hatred, or taking a stand. It’s not a cavalier decision to make, no matter how simple it may seem at a distance. I found myself often thinking of a well-known quote from a speech by Martin Nieöller that my best friend’s parents had up on their fridge throughout my childhood:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I remember wondering whether I would speak out to protect someone at great risk to myself, and I saw, over and over, how I did not. It’s incredibly hard to stand against bullies, against a frightening majority, especially during the fragile years of adolescence when everything seems impossibly significant. It gives me hope, even all these years later, to read about teenagers who choose to do it, who set an example of confidence in compassion. It doesn’t require perfection, but it does mean taking a risk, then living with the consequences.

For more about Brent Hartinger, go here.

To learn more about LAMDA Literary arm, head here.

The Cardturner, Louis Sachar

I picked this book up used at one of my favorite old haunts when I was visiting my family on the east coast in July. I think I noticed it because a decade ago I loved Holes (both the novel and the movie), and a decade before that, I was a fan of Sachar’s Wayside School stories, so I was already primed to try a new book by him. My husband ended up reading it first (in-laws are all fine and good, but by week two, escape – in any form, even your wife’s YA obsession – is necessary) and he loved it.

His devouring the book actually made me wary. My husband prefers novels like Cannery Row and Reamde. He’s reading The Grapes of Wrath right now. For fun. I mean, sure, I read it in high school and liked it a lot more than the rest of the class (in retrospect, I was probably the only one who read the whole thing), but I would never pick it up now, much less stay up half the night reading it.

When he’s not reading great American literature, he prefers to work his way through non-fiction like Cockpit Confidential and Traffic, and while our tastes occasionally intersect (we’re both Paulo Coehlo fans, and we’ll read any crazy book AJ Jacobs comes up with), he rarely convinces me to try his pick of the month (Flash Boys: A Wallstreet Revolt? Seriously?! It’s not happening). The one exception has been Don Quixote; we’re reading it together, although at the rate we’re going, we’ll probably be finished in about fifteen years.

So for him to grab The Cardturner and read more than a chapter without tossing it aside? I was intrigued. And wary. Then I started reading it, and I understood right away. This is a YA book, yes. But it’s also a book about playing bridge, and my husband absolutely swoons over games. He’s not picky – in the last few years, he’s picked up Mahjong, Dominion, and Quiddler with equal enthusiasm. Much like my mother, he will happily play any game at any time, even if he has to spend an hour teaching everyone else the rules, AND, even if after teaching them, he loses. He’s an incredibly good sport and has the patience to learn rule minutiae that I would probably ignore/never know about in the first place (I don’t even look at the rule books if I can help it). After reading The Cardturner, I’m actually shocked that he hasn’t asked to play bridge with me.

The amazing thing is, even though I rolled my eyes when I started the book (and occasionally had to force myself to pay attention to the longer rule sections in the story), I was genuinely excited about bridge by the end. Is that even a thing? Do people still get excited by bridge? Sachar surely is, and his passion is catching. The book was an absolute delight, and now that I’ve finished it, I find myself wishing I had a genius bridge playing uncle – or a teenage enthusiast – to get me started…


For more about Louis Sachar, head here.

Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan

If you picked up a copy of Two Boys Kissing in an airport bookshop, you’d probably think it was a teen melodrama. I know this because when I bought it, I thought it might be that, or at least in the ballpark of YA romance. I’ve also unsuccessfully tried to convince two friends to read it, and they’ve both taken one look at the cover and flat-out refused – not because it isn’t a lovely nice cover, but because it suggests a very different story than Levithan has written. I get that, I really do. The person who coined the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” was clearly talking about people and not actual books because every person I’ve ever met does just that. I do it all the time. (I also judge books by the type of font used, the kerning, the number of words on a page, the feel of the paper used…)

If you are a teenager now, it is unlikely you knew us well. We are your shadow uncles, your angel godfathers, your mother’s or your grandmother’s best friend from college, the author of that book you found in the gay section of the library. We are characters in a Tony Kushner play, or names on a quilt that rarely gets taken out anymore. We are the ghosts of the remaining older generation. You know some of our songs.

We do not want to haunt you too somberly. We don’t want our legacy to be gravitas. You wouldn’t want to live your life like that, and you won’t want to be remembered like that, either. Your mistake would be to find commonality in our dying. The living part mattered more. 

We taught you how to dance. (p 3)

That’s not to say this isn’t a novel about two boys kissing. It is. It is about two boys, exes, who decide to try to break the Guinness Book of World Record for longest kiss (based on a true event from September 18, 2010, when two college students, Matty Daley and Bobby Canciello kissed for thirty-two hours, thirty minutes, and forty-seven seconds). The story is told to us by ghosts, gay men who died during the height of the AIDs epidemic now watching over one small town and lives of seven gay teenage boys over the course of a single, important weekend. Levithan balances each element of the story with candid grace. He leans in to both the funny and frightening aspects of love and youth and being a little outside the circle.

We wish we could show you the world as it sleeps. Then you’d never have any doubt about how similar, how trusting, how astounding and vulnerable we all are. (p 20)

The book reads like a love letter, not just to or for gay boys, but to youth. To the exploration and mistakes we make when we’re unformed, blind, stupid, happy, on the edge of death, exploding with life. Each of the boys in this book has his own story, his own tiny piece carved out. Each of those pieces feels familiar, maybe because there’s something about going through adolescence in the United States that brings the most diverse people together with the recognition of how close to the heart seemingly far flung experiences land us. How similar , how trusting, how astounding and vulnerable…

We wish we could have been there for you. We didn’t have many role models of our own – we latched on to the foolish love of Oscar Wilde and the well-versed longing of Walt Whitman because nobody else was there to show us an untortured path. We were going to be your role models. We were going to give you art and music and confidence and shelter and a much better world. Those who survived lived to do this.  But we haven’t been there for you. We’ve been here. Watching as you become the role models. (p 194)


For more about David Levithan, head here.

My Most Excellent Year: A novel of love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park, Steve Kluger

I had about a hundred things I was supposed to be doing this weekend, and rereading this book was not on the list. The problem was, by about four o’clock on Sunday, I was in such an irritable mood that all I wanted was an old friend.

Unfortunately, my oldest friends live thousands of miles away, and my dear friends within driving distance have marathon training runs, children’s birthday parties and new babies (or boyfriends) to keep their dance cards full. And as much as I cherish my husband (he is a wonderful and very patient man!), I could tell this mood was not going to improve even in his company. I decided to hit up my own private stacks and rediscovered one of my all-time favorite MG/YA novels.

I reread the whole thing in less than twelve hours, and it was just as perfect as I remembered. It’s told from the perspective of three seniors looking back at their freshman year of high school in Boston, and honestly, it just has everything I could ever want from a book like this: effortless diversity across race, orientation, and ability; passionate integration of interests covering topics as broad as baseball to musical theatre to political activism; beautiful, believable friendships; and atypically structured, loving families.

This is the kind of book I wish made it onto the curriculum for required reading in schools. Without being preachy or overly moralistic, it promotes resilient, realistic characters any student could be proud to emulate. It’s almost enough to make me want to rewind and take a second stab at being fourteen (almost).


For more about Steve Kluger, head over here.

Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell

I listened to almost all of Eleanor and Park while I was training for my race this spring. I had a little over an hour of it left after I came back from Colorado, and I eventually got around to listening to it last week while I was making dinner.

It felt strange to play it while I was indoors, to take it from the paths where I had run, feet pounding, brain half engaged with the story and half with the pull of my breath.The story made less sense to me there, in the kitchen, then it had in the hot sunlight of Saturday mornings. Park and Eleanor were more real when I was pushing myself to go just a little further, a little faster. In that vulnerable state, running more than I ever had before, a part of me opened up to their story. The mix tapes and their awkward conversations seemed familiar. I could remember high school the way it really was, sharp and exciting and new, rather than the way it seems when I look at pictures, or listen to songs I used to play on endless repeat in my car. 

In two days, I’m going to be spending a week with thirteen high schoolers. We’re going on a mission trip to work with an organization that is trying to put an end to human trafficking, and even though I’ve known these kids for two years, listening to this book reminds me of how much space exists between us. When I look in the mirror, it sometimes seems like I could still be seventeen, but when I sit and talk with them, I’m just…old. The heady rush of emotion that Rowell writes so well is always just under the surface for them; I can’t believe how big everything seems. SATs. Prom. Pop quizzes in Spanish class. Everything is in technicolor when they tell me about it, as though the world is constantly imploding around them every day.

It’s exhausting. I try to keep up with what they like, and who they like, but in the end, it doesn’t matter because a book like Eleanor and Park reminds me that, emotionally at least, I’m much closer to being the parent of a teenager than I am a teenager myself. It’s not that I don’t feel things deeply, but there is a contained element, even to my eruptions. There’s been a sanding down of intensity that happened so slowly, so subtly, I didn’t even realized it until my edges were soft.

That may be one of the reasons I love books like this. It reminds me of what it feels like to be on the verge of exploding out of my own skin. Of being young and in love and frightened of how little is controllable. These kids, when I’m with them, they’re in constant motion, even when they strive to be still. I listen to the rush of them all around me and wonder if every person who knew me at fifteen felt like this, like a rock in the stream of my life.


For more about Rainbow Rowell, go here.

Miss Mabel’s School for Girls, Katie Cross

I have been getting ready to start writing a new book, and in the process, I’ve been doing a lot of research on an issue close to my heart – that of representation in fiction. At this point, I’ve read probably hundreds of articles about what that means to different people, and I’ve come to this conclusion. While my view of the word is necessarily influenced by how I look and the experiences I’ve had, my ability to write a range of diverse, realistic characters is only limited by my desire to empathize, to imagine life outside of my own skin. If I want to read more stories about blind mermaids, and Indonesian girls who climb magic beanstalks, and sixty year old asexual men winning knitting bees, then I have to write characters like that.  If I want more novels that celebrate the fact that being different is normal, because it is normal, I have to make sure my work reflects that too.

There’s nothing – and everything – special about having a sister who’s an alcoholic, or juggling sole custody of children from two different marriages, or not hitting puberty until three years after your friends have. It’s lucky to be conventionally beautiful, but it’s just as special to know that the people who love you think your big nose and hairy knuckles and flat bangs are perfect. Personally, I love how weathered my hands look after years spent rafting without quite enough sunscreen, because when I look at them, a part of me remembers how strong I feel out on the river, and yet, I’ve never thought about the hands of the characters I write.

I haven’t paid enough attention to the schedule a character might have for shaving, or what it could mean for one to buy something as simple as a deodorant intended for the opposite gender. I haven’t considered the types of food each of them might eat, or whether their skin is so dry it must be rubbed with oil after every shower – what it could mean to have parents of different races, or a family so big, no secret can survive in it. I certainly hadn’t considered what it would be like to read a fantasy novel where the only men in the story are a chauffeur, a priest who’s heard but not seen, and a beloved, absent father. When I picked up Cross’ book, I wasn’t expecting to start thinking about the power dynamics of a situation – a family, a school, and a government – filled only with women. I don’t know whether she planned it that way when she sat down to start writing Miss Mabel’s either, but regardless of whether it was a conscious decision or an incidental one, I was fascinated by the result.

Although the story and genre are very different, this book reminded me of watching the first season of Orange is the New Black. If you’re not familiar with the show, it takes place inside a women’s prison, and it does a brilliant job of creating a novel cast of female characters. It was special for me to find a show like that, and a book like this, because one of the things I personally long for in fiction is representation of interesting women. It’s not the only thing I want to read or watch, but when I find myself immersed in a story about women – not just a woman, but a community of women – I feel a part of something larger than myself. The United States, especially, is a culture defined more by individualism than the larger group, so I don’t often acknowledge or appreciate the influence women have on me, but when I have a reminder thrust upon me, the desire to do so bubbles up.

Cross manages to create a world where men exist alongside women, but are not the focus of the story. Much of the novel takes place inside a school for girls, where the teachers are exclusively women, but in addition to that construct, our protagonist, Bianca, is also deeply tied to her mother and grandmother, and the government of the country they live in is matriarchal. Nothing about this feels forced or intended as a slight to men; it’s simply the natural expression of this particular woman’s journey for justice and revenge.

I ended up spending almost as much time  thinking about my own perceptions of the world Cross has created as I did reading the book, and in doing so, loosened some important ideas for myself about what I’m searching for in my own writing, and in the books I read. I want more novels like this, stories in genres I already love with an unexpected twist of truth.


For more about Katie Cross, go here.

Sanctum (Guards of the Shadowlands, Book One), Sarah Fine

Mercy is not a right. Mercy is a gift from one to another. It can’t be earned. (p 368).

Sometimes, a book is just perfect. I don’t mean in the “it’s a classic for the ages and every generation should read and analyze it,” but in the “this speaks to my soul” sort of way. Sanctum is one of those books. I came across the first chapter by chance on Amazon and decided to get it since it was on sale, and then the rest of the novel ended up being off-the-rails awesome.

Fine wove her story around redemption and friendship, depression, suicide, hell, history – all without losing her sense of humor (not an easy task considering some of the subject matter she took on). The book broke my heart a couple of times too, and when I was done with it, I couldn’t stop thinking about the people I know who struggle with debilitating mental health issues. Novels that tackle the idea of teen suicide with such frank honesty gut me, and this one, despite being a fantasy novel instead of straight fiction, was right on point.

It was a book about healing, about using newfound strength to protect and to offer mercy, and about what it looks like not to be able to find that strength. No judgement there either, but rather an acceptance that healing is complicated, and messy, and sometimes incomplete. It’s a painful and  difficult idea for us to accept, and it’s rare for an author to capture the experience of living through it – from both the perspective of the person who feels hopeless and of the one who feels helpless – so well.

Fine also created a fantastical world that was horrifying while containing a kernel of truth that was inescapable. Her underworld felt like such a true place – a horrible, soul-sucking, and brilliant setting for this novel – that I’m almost disappointed that we might not get to see as much of it in the next book. That being said, she nailed the pacing and wrap-up of this first book in her series, and I can’t wait to read the next one.

For more about Sarah Fine, go here.

Allegiant, Veronica Roth

What’s that? You read Allegiant last month when it came out instead of making your daily word count for NaNoWriMo or doing any of the work publishers are actually you paying for? No? That was just me? Okay, I see how it is! My justification for slacking off went like this. 1. I’ll only read this while at the gym, and going to the gym is important, so reading this book is important. 2. It’s the end of the trilogy! I can’t be expected to hold off indefinitely. And 3. Ooh preview for Divergent before Catching Fire? Yes, please!

When Veronica Roth’s first novel, Divergent, came out in 2011, I gave it to everyone for Christmas. Seriously – I bought a copy for three friends, both of my sisters-in-law, and as a Secret Santa gift. That resulted in four of those people then going out to buy the book for their friends, so really, I’m pretty sure Roth can thank me for about at least a chunk of her royalties that first year.

Her books are dystopian. They’re YA. They have a badass female protagonist. It’s the trifecta of sweet spots. Yes, I’m a Hunger Games fan (I’m also a Jennifer Lawrence fan, so thanks to whatever god brought those two together), which is how I originally discovered Roth. I fell in love with the genre back when I first read The Giver in the third grade, and since then, I’ve had plenty of quality novels to keep me satisfied. I mean, have you read The House of the Scorpion? Or Unwind? Little Brother? I even loved The Maze Runner, although I haven’t read the sequels because that first book was scary as hell and I’m still not sure I’ve fully recovered. If I bothered to even glance at my bookshelves, this post would devolve into me shouting a list of my favorites. Instead, I’ll try to restrain myself to saying that as far as you can trust my opinion, you can trust it here.

Many YA dystopian novels come in threes, and in my experience, the third one is always the biggest stretch for me. Allegiant was no exception. The difficulty for me is that while I have no problem believing in teenagers as warriors and strategists, I have much harder time being sold on them as diplomats or  heads of a revolution, which is inevitably where a series like this has to go. Roth did a better job than most at capturing the imperfection of a system that expects such a thing. Her characters are deeply flawed, and she doesn’t shy away from the consequences of their behavior in this book. In fact, she’s brutally honest with them, and with us, about what it means to make the hard choices, not just as an individual, but for a larger society. Those decisions comes with a high price, and sacrifice is the only constant in a world on the brink of tearing itself apart.

She captures this idea beautifully. The only place she stumbles is in her pacing of the story. This book could have easily been two complete novels, and she would have done more justice to the complex relationships she had been nurturing. I’m sure there were forces at work that kept her to a three book story arc, but it’s a shame because her characters have so much going on that I wanted to spend more time exploring the choices they’re forced to make. To her credit, she doesn’t let the story lag; the  problem is that the reader is given too little time to breathe. In some circumstances, that can work for a book, but ultimately, I preferred her approach to Divergent and Insurgent. Those books were both a more cathartic experience for me because I had time to sit with the sadness that inevitably follows the adrenaline rush of youthful revolution.

That being said, it’s unusual for me to wait so long to review a book after I’ve read it, and time has given me some perspective on this one. While Allegiant wasn’t my favorite (of the trilogy or the genre), it has grown on me in its absence. I find myself thinking about it a month later, still considering some of the implications that didn’t have time to sink in when I was reading. I’d prefer, of course, having that space within the book itself, but I’m impressed that Roth managed to create a an ending that craves space long after I’ve put the story away.


For more about Veronica Roth, head over here.

Enchanted; Hero (Books 1 and 2 of The Woodcutter Sisters), Alethea Kontis

November has officially swallowed me up. Between NaNoWriMo, Ten to One, publicizing the new book and helping my sister-in-law with her wedding, my free time has seriously dwindled. Somehow, however, I found time to read not one but two of Kontis’ Woodcutter Sister books. And I really wish I had a third…

Not that I have time to read another one – certainly not when I have so many other more pressing projects I absolutely have to be working on – but if Kontis magically put out a new book tomorrow, I would find a way to squeeze it in.

Shoulders squared, feet apart, and tailbone centered, Saturday lifted the wooden practice sword before her. “Again.”

Velius laughed at her. Saturday scowled. There wasn’t a speck of dirt on her instructor; no dirt would be brave enough to mar his perfect fey beauty. Nor did he seem fatigued. She hated him a little more for that.

“Let’s take a break,” he said.

“I don’t need a break.”

“I do.”

Lies. He was calling her weak. The insult only made her angrier. “No, you don’t.”

Velius lifted his head to the sky and prayed to yet another god. Temperance, maybe, or Patience. Was there a God of Arguments You’ve Lost Twenty Times Before and Were About to Have Again? If so, Saturday bet on that one. (pg 2, Hero)

Kontis writes the kind of books I would have adored at twelve. Apparently not much has changed. Just as I needed a break from algebra and French grammar lessons back then, I still crave that peaceful feeling that comes from reading novels like these when I’m drowning in deadlines.

The love stories here are simple and predictable, yes, but that’s okay because the books aren’t about romance. They’re about Kontis’ young heroines figuring out how they fit into their family, and into the world. Along the way, they do happen to meet some sweet young men who are fall head over heels in love with them and are perfectly happy to be supportive of being, well, support. These guys enjoy the pleasures that comes from being partners (and occasionally sidekicks); since I know plenty of men just like this, I was tickled to see them appear on the page in more than one guise.

What I especially loved about these books (besides the author’s spot-on sense of humor) was that the women – not only the protagonists, but every woman encountered – had power. These women altered destinies; the men were mostly around to be loving and helpful (or pawns…sometimes they made excellent pawns). A few of her women were selfless, and some were wicked, but Kontis also wrote characters who fell along the spectrum in between.

Given that these books are aimed at a younger audience, I especially appreciated that fact. I read all sorts of trash when I was a kid, but I gravitated toward stories about competent, tough, questing women who also fell in love. I was a romantic, always, but I often wanted more from the female characters written for me. I read stories about two-dimensional women because my choices were limited. All I had access to was a single, small library, so it felt special to find something that fit my favorite niche. It turns out, it still does.

Of course, these days, I not only want stories about kick-ass ladies, I also long for fun books like these with a little more diversity. Where are the adventure romances about non straight/white/young characters? When I find books like Kontis’, that hit so many of my happiness buttons, it really does make me crave more. But why can’t I have the treat I love in other flavors?! It’s National Novel Writing Month, so I can only hope some of you are busy crafting what I seek – not books about issues, but stories that capture powerful, relatable, exciting protagonists who are more like us and less like the fairy tale characters Hollywood has cursed us with.

In case you aren’t writing your own but want to point me in the right direction, I’m looking for books to read in December with interesting, underrepresented narrators. Bonus points for humor, fantasy and/or YA.


For more about Alethea Kontis, head over here.