Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Ten books I wish I read when I was in high school

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is a back to school freebie. They listed several ideas for topics, but I was thinking about how there are so many books I wish I had read when I was younger - for so many different reasons - so that will be my list.

Many of these weren't even published back then, which is kind of the point. We didn't really have much for teen books back in the 80s when I was in high school, and it's a shame because I really would have benefited from them. Pretty much all I read in high school was Stephen King and Danielle Steel. I still love Stephen King, but I really could have stood a bit more reading diversity. A couple of prevalent themes on this list are feminism and self-confidence, two things that I didn't realize I needed at the time.

1. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
One of my all-time favorite teen books. Frankie is the sort of girl I wish I was in high school. She had so much self-confidence and was so clever and used her smarts to infiltrate an all-boys secret society. She had a boyfriend, but didn't let him define her. I admire her so much!

2. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick
Another one of my favorites, I think I would have appreciated this story about a potentially-violent teenage boy and his unlikely friends. As a teenager, I could have stood to be a bit less judgmental, and this may have helped a bit.

3. Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
Another one about trouble kids, plus it has a Sylvia Plath theme and I was kind of obsessed with her in high school.

4. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
I wish I had read some books about gay characters back then and maybe I would have been more sympathetic. (I grew up in a very isolated rural town.) The main character is also dealing with unexpected feelings after her parents' death, and since my father died while I was in high school, I think I would have appreciated this on a few different levels.

5. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
If there's one thing I could have used in high school, it was a healthy model for romantic relationships. This one even took place in the 80s.

6. How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
This kind of goes along with the healthy relationship model, but I could have used a big dose of down-to-earth feminism when I was growing up. Or any kind of feminism, but I think the kind with this much swearing would have really spoken to me. She talked a lot about growing up and her perspective would have been helpful.

7. Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit
Because one book about feminism isn't actually enough.

8. Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon
This is on my extremely short list of books that I think everyone should read and the world would be a better place. I actually think I would have been interested in this when I was growing up because I did like to read "issue" books, and this is about a lot of different issues in people's lives.

9. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
I think I would have loved it even in high school. I loved dark books, and I think it would have given me more of an appreciation of the classics.

10. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I wish I had read more classics. Obviously I read classics because I had to, and I liked some of them, but there are so many that I probably would have liked had I read them. Jane Austen is so different from what I read at the time, but I think maybe I would have liked her. It's hard to say really.

It was hard to narrow this down to 10, and I keep thinking of more. Basically I wish all the teen books, and the Harry Potter series, existed when I was a kid/teenager. And I wish I had just read more widely than I did, though I read pretty much everything I had access to at the time. We had a very small library in my town, but I was very grateful for it.

Who knows if I actually would have liked all of these as a teenager, much less if they would have affected my life in a positive way. Even without reading them in high school I think I've turned out ok, and I'm very happy I've read them at all!

Monday, August 29, 2016

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (1998), narrated by Jim Dale

The second installment of the Hary Potter series begins with Harry ruining a dinner party at the Dursley's when a house elf named Dobby arrives suddenly to warn him from returning to Hogwarts. But return he does, in a flying car that Ron steals from his father and lands, ungracefully, in the Whomping Willow. This year sees a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, the insufferable Gilderoy Lockhart, who is incredibly vain and self-centered. A series of petrifications rocks the school, apparently related to the opening of a mysterious Chamber of Secrets.

I had forgotten that this was the book in which Harry discovers Tom Riddle's diary; I somehow thought that came later. I did remember that it was the book with the spiders though. We are also introduced to Dobby, as I mentioned, and learn more about the death of resident ghost Moaning Myrtle.

When Harry discovers that the caretakers cat, Mrs. Norris, has been petrified, his placement on the scene causes a lot of suspicion. A message on the wall says that the Chamber of Secrets has been opened and that the heir of Slytherin will kill students who aren't of pure wizard blood. Harry's ability to speak Parseltongue and his near-brush with being placed in Slytherin cause him to doubt himself and wonder if somehow he is involved with the attacks. The distrust among students as they raced to solve the mystery created a great deal of delicious, delicious tension.

Gilderoy Lockhart is the sort of character you love to hate. His reading list for Defense Against the Dark Arts consists of the many memoirs he has written bragging of his exploits. He immediately takes to Hermione, as she is the only one who has read the books, and she continues to admire him even though he is completely inept.

It was all just so much fun! I'm really looking forward to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. This is where the books begin to get much longer so it will be a challenge for me on audio, but I think I'm up to it!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Sunlight Pilgrims

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan (2016)

It's the beginning of winter in 2020, and it will be the worst winter since the last ice age. Dylan MacRae leaves the small cinema where he grew up with his mother and grandmother to live in a caravan park in Clachan Fells, Scotland. Living in a neighboring caravan are Constance, a woman perpetually caught between two lovers with no desire to settle down, and her trans teen daughter, Stella. Each of these characters is alone or isolated in some way when the story begins, but as temperatures plummet they come to depend on each other and grow closer as the winter settles around them.

Constance is single at the beginning, which is good news to Dylan who is smitten with her pretty instantly, but everyone else knows it's only a matter of time before she gets back with Alistair and/or Caleb. Dylan has recently lost the only family he's had, his mother leaving him the caravan to which he moves when he loses the theater for financial reasons. He brings two tubs of ashes and his gin still, which is all he needs to start over again. Stella has been living as a girl for about a year, and feels like her only friend is Vito, an Italian who she met online, until she meets Dylan. Stella is on the cusp of adolescence, and is desperate to get started on hormone blockers, but their location in rural Scotland and the impending winter are making anything short of survival a low priority.

All of these people are sympathetic but imperfect, as the best characters are. Of course I felt so much for Stella, alienated from her peers, her own father refusing to call her by her new name. She's a tough kid though, just like her mother. I loved Constance, actually. One of her lovers, Stella's father Alistair was married three times in the course of his relationship with Constance, but it wasn't like she was sitting around waiting for him to come to her. This is just how she was, and she was completely unapologetic. When Stella began transitioning, it of course required lots of meetings with the school regarding use of bathrooms and locker rooms and whatnot. "At one of the meetings Mother Superior asked her mother why her father wasn't there. Constance said he was with his wife, and she could bring her other boyfriend in if it helped any." This isn't Constance being stupid; she owns her lifestyle and doesn't care what anyone - even the nuns - think about it. I suspect that is part of what makes Dylan love her. Poor Dylan. He's a good guy, just trying to do what's right and provide everyone with quality gin from his grandmother's recipe to take them through the long winter.

As much as I liked these characters, I think my favorite part of this book is the language. Fagan describes the snow and ice so beautifully throughout the story, that it was easy to forget how deadly it was.

"Sun spirals down through treetops showing up sediments of silver and amber dust. A frozen pond. Curls of ice make a frost flower on a fallen bough. Each iced petal is perfectly curled and see-through. Winter has been hand-carving them overnight. Placing them here."

Isn't that exquisite? It was just lovely to read, all the way through. This is neither a plus nor a minus, I don't think, but I encountered more unfamiliar words than I have in quite a long time. Petiole? Chimenea? Tannoy? Penitentes? I don't know if some of these are just regional to Scotland, or if Fagan has a huge vocabulary she's showing off, but I don't remember this from The Panopticon. (Speaking of which, I can't really compare this to Fagan's first book. I read it more than two years ago, and it was a very different story.)

I think I wanted a little more about the environmental catastrophe. The world is essentially freezing over and it's devastating, and nobody was sure if the winter would end or if they'd enter another ice age. You know I love a good apocalyptic novel, so I can't get enough of the destruction, but this novel was definitely more focused on the people. And that's fine - it's good at what it is.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Ten Books Sitting On My Shelves Unread

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is Ten Books That Have Been On Your Shelf (Or TBR) From Before You Started Blogging That You STILL Haven't Read Yet. I started blogging in 2007 and I honestly have no sense of time, but I doubt I have many books still sitting around that long because I don't tend to keep books. But I do have some unread books on my shelves that I really should have read by now so I'll list those!

1. The Winds of War and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk
I'm listing these first because I know I've had them since 2000-2001 which is definitely pre-blog. They were a gift from a boyfriend and I read about half of The Winds of War and stopped for some reason even though it was very good, and I don't know how to come back from that. It's like 900 pages and I'll have to start over and that's a lot to re-read. I keep thinking these books would be great fodder if I were trapped somewhere for a long period of time.

2. The Wild Rose by Jennifer Donnelly
I bought this whole series for my mother and after she died I took them back. I've read two and just need to read the third. I loved the first two and I have no idea why I wait so long between them.

3. House of the Dead/Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I was on a Dostoyevsky kick once, and got as far as buying this volume of two short novels but still haven't read it.

4. No Good Duke Goes Unpunished by Sarah Maclean
I snagged this from the library book sale after reading Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover. Then I also bought the ebook of A Rogue By Any Other Name and read that first. Then she released a new book called The Rogue Not Taken, which starts a new series and now I want to read that next.

5. Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix
This was an impulse buy on a trip to St. Louis a couple of years ago, but I still kind of want to read it so I can't manage to give it up. I keep thinking I'll read it in October, as if that's the only time to read horror.

6. Moral Disorder and Other Stories by Margaret Atwood
I put this on a table and then set a taxidermied mounted fish on top of it and forgot it existed. When I picked up the fish to return it to my sister, there was a whole pile of books, including this one. (What? You don't borrow taxidermied animals from family members?)

7. How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
A gift from a friend, not that long ago actually. This past Christmas, I think? The point is that I was really looking forward to reading it very soon and now it's August.

8. Inbound 4: A Comic Book History of Boston
I picked this up on a whim at Hub Comics a few years ago, and it's ridiculous that I haven't read it yet because it's a very thin comic book. Come on.

9. Grandville by Bryan Talbot
Also from Hub Comics, I grabbed this the moment I saw it because I love Bryan Talbot and I was still on an Alice in Sunderland high. I'm really looking forward to the day that I eventually crack this one open.

10. Pioneer Girl: the Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Pamela Smith Hill
The difficulty with this one is that it's a large, heavy, oddly-shaped hardcover that is not the sort of book you carry around. Or the sort you read comfortably in bed. So I need to have some sort of a plan for when or how I manage it.

And a shoutout to F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, which I eventually got rid of even though I still want to read it. I know I've been wanting to read this one since pre-blog and I even had it on a TBR Pile Challenge list once and still failed to read it. Why can't I read this book?

So that's my list of shame for the week! Do you have any books that have been sitting on your shelves unread for an embarrassingly long time?

Monday, August 22, 2016


Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (2016)

Twenty-two-year-old Tess comes to New York and finds a job in a well-known restaurant in Union Square. It's competitive and merciless, but she makes herself part of the restaurant and the odd family of people who work there. Among the busyness of the restaurant - both choreographed and chaotic - she learns about food and especially about wine, and develops an obsession with the bartender, Jake, and a slightly different kind of obsession with a server and Jake's close friend, Simone.

The story was told in first person by Tess, whose name I don't think was mentioned until about 200 pages in. Her coworkers had a series of nicknames for her: The New Girl, Fluffer, Skipper, Baby Monster. It takes place over the course of the year, told in four parts for each of the four seasons. There's not much of a plot, and maybe a little character development thought I still don't really know Tess. It's more slice-of-life, and I liked it, getting inside the world of this shmancy restaurant in New York. The prose is pretty straight-forward, but sprinkled through here and there was a page that looked like poetry, but was actually random snippets of conversation. I liked these parts, the conversations all running together in a cacophony of voices speaking all at once.

What's interesting is that the novel begins with Tess's arrival in New York and is entirely focused on her experience working in this restaurant and her relationships with her co-workers. We know that she's from a small town somewhere (eventually her home state is revealed as Ohio), but we know nothing about her life before she came to New York. She mentions a family so we know she has one, but we know little about it. Nor do we know anything about her interests, her hopes and dreams, her past experiences with anything at all.  It all gives me the feeling that her life is entirely consumed by her job at the restaurant, which I imagine is how it feels to her. It all painted a pretty vivid picture of her experiences, so vivid that during one passage describing a frenetic shift I felt incredibly anxious. 

I also moved to a new place when I was 22, and got a job that was really hard and time-consuming and exhausting and ate up my life, and I did little outside of work, and I eventually left under circumstances that were in some ways similar to Tess's. (But not too similar - let me just make that clear.) So now that I think about it, part of the reason this book felt a bit stressful is because it felt so real to me, although in my case I didn't socialize with my coworkers and there was no drinking or drugs at my job (though it might have improved things.)

I didn't especially like Tess, but I was sympathetic enough to her. It's not her fault that she's only 22. She was young and naive and became completely caught up in the life of the restaurant. At times I cringed at her behavior, especially toward Jake and Simone. The two were very close and Tess was constantly trying to suss out their relationship. She made a fool of herself in other ways too, drinking so heavily she would be sick all over herself, and it seemed like the only reason the others weren't put off by this is because they had probably been the same way once.

This was a book I heard about around a year ago from the Books on the Nightstand podcast, so I've been looking forward to it for quite a while. It's been very popular, with hundreds of people on hold at the library, yet it doesn't strike me as the sort of book that would be insanely popular for some reason. The Goodreads rating is fairly low, and it's a bit literary in that it's not plot-driven. The strength of the novel is more in how the story is told than the story itself, but although Tess is not super-appealing and we don't know much about her, she feels very real. Possibly because it's based heavily on a period in the author's own life.

I didn't love it exactly, but I liked it well enough and I think it does stand out in its uniqueness. As I write this, I'm starting to like it more than I did when I finished, so I think it might really lend itself to more thought and discussion than I originally gave it credit for.

Have you read it? I'd love to know your thoughts!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Throwback Thursday: A Great and Terrible Beauty

In which I share vague recollections of books I read long ago that have stuck with me.

In this Gothic story, Gemma Doyle attends a boarding school with a mysterious burned-out wing and a connection to another world. Gemma involves her clique of friends in her strange other-worldly journeys, which become very dark and dangerous. But the promise of a future as something other than an oppressed Victorian wife is enough to keep them going back.

I loved this book so much! The story and the characters and the writing all came together to create such an immersive experience. I read this probably ten years ago and still remember how much I loved it. Immediately after finishing I grabbed the second one, Rebel Angels, which I also loved. I had to wait for the next book to come out, but by the time The Sweet Far Thing was released a couple of years later I had forgotten enough that I felt like I should re-read the first two before tackling it. And that's where it all ended.

I still have fantasies that someday I'll re-read the whole series, and I think it would really be worth it. I'd love to relive the first two books and finally experience the conclusion. Maybe some day when I'm caught up on everything else I want to read...

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

One True Loves

One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2016), narrated by Julia Whelan

Emma Blair married the love of her life, the boy she crushed on throughout high school. Defying their parents' expectations, they move from Acton, MA to California and pursue their dreams, which take them on exciting trips all over the world. Just before their first anniversary, Jesse gets a last-minute job that takes him on a helicopter over the Pacific. The helicopter is lost and, with it, Emma's husband and all her hopes and dreams.

Three and a half years later, Emma is back in Massachusetts and has moved on with her life. She works in her parents' bookstore and she's newly engaged to a wonderful guy named Sam. And then Jesse is found, alive, and he's coming back for Emma.

What a torturous premise for a book! I love it! The best part about this is that Jesse and Emma had a really really fantastic life together and were madly in love. His death destroyed her. She couldn't function for a really long time. But finally, she realized that although he was dead, she was still alive, and deserved - and needed - to move on. When she ran into Sam, a guy she knew back in high school, she couldn't believe her good fortune at finding love for a second time. Sam is also a really wonderful guy. So when Jesse returns, it isn't at all obvious what she should do or who she should be with. It's Jesse who she has grieved for all these years, who she never wanted to be separated from. But what about Sam? He hasn't done anything wrong and doesn't deserve to be abandoned. It's really kind of an impossible situation and I couldn't get enough of it.

I love everything about Emma and her family and friends. Her parents own a bookstore and always wanted one of their daughters to run it, but that was going to be Emma's sister Marie. The two women weren't ever close until after Jesse went missing and then Marie went through a rough time and they really bonded and became good friends. Her best friend was Olive, who she had been friends with since high school and they kept in touch even though they lived far apart. I like how Emma's trajectory took her away from her hometown but then brought her back there later.

And the two men! Jesse was adventurous and passionate and shared Emma's desire to get away from their little town and see the world. Sam stayed there after high school and became a music teacher. The life he and Emma built together was totally different from her previous lifestyle, but great in a different way.

My ONLY issue with this book has to do with Jesse's time away when he was missing. When he tells his story, the time doesn't add up - it's been 3.5 years, but his story only covers a little over 2 years. I don't want to give too much away, but it also wasn't very realistic. However, I was willing to suspend disbelief because that's not really what the story was about - it was about Emma's dilemma.

Also, Emma is one of those heroines who doesn't eat when she's upset, which is one of my pet peeves. But then she'll realize she didn't eat all day and is starving and she'll hork down a whopper and fries. So I forgive her. If I was Emma, I would have been totally stress eating my way through this whole situation. I knew what I wanted her to do. But I knew before I even started the book, because of the way I look at the situation, so obviously this is just my mindset and I had no idea if that is at all what Emma would do. It was very anxiety-producing and I wasn't even the one having to figure out something so impossible.

Despite being a librarian and reading a ton of book reviews and book blogs and listening to book podcasts, the only place I heard about this book was on the Perpetual Page-Turner blog. I read her review and was like GIVE ME IT NOW. How had I not heard of this author before? She has a few other books and I'm especially interested in After I Do, which I will likely also listen to on audio. By the way, the narrator was great, and this was one of those audiobooks that made it possible for me to run two miles without dying, so thank you Taylor Jenkins Reid and Julie Whelan for contributing to my physical fitness.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Top Ten Books Set in a Boarding School

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is Top Ten Books With X Setting. One of their examples is boarding school, which made me laugh and I knew instantly that would be my topic. I read a lot of teen books, and at my job I run a book group called the Not-So-Young Adult book group, which is a book group for adults in which we read and discuss books written for teens. We have kind of a running joke about boarding schools because it seems like there are just SO MANY books set in boarding schools. It's kind of a thing. Oh, and there are never any adults around and the kids are all running wild and it sounds AMAZING. I feel like I've read a ton of books that take place in boarding schools!

Here are my favorites, in no particular order:

1. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

2. Winger by Andrew Smith

3. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

4. Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

5. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

6. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

7. The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

8. Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

9. The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan

10. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Oh man, I totally want to re-read all of those again right now. And also The Secret History, which I was reminded of by making this list, but which actually takes place at a college. It's interesting how many of these are pre-blog (the ones with no links), yet they still came easily to mind when I thought about boarding school books.

Have you read many books set in boarding schools? What are your favorites?

Monday, August 15, 2016

Waking Up White

Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving (2014)

Debby Irving grew up in the very white and wealthy community of Winchester, MA. Being white was never something she thought much about, though she was concerned about diversity and race relations. In her career she tried to reach out to diverse populations, but she couldn't understand why her well-intentioned efforts kept failing. While taking a class at Wheelock college called "Racial and Cultural Identity," Irving had an "Aha!" moment that changed the course of her career and her life. She began examining her own white culture and privilege and has devoted herself to racial justice education.

As a white person myself, I was very interested in this book and its promise of helping me understand how to be a better ally to people of color. I knew it was also a memoir, and I was happy to read about her discovery and analysis of her race and how it affects her worldview. Unfortunately, it was tedious and repetitive, and I got really tired of hearing about how privileged and entitled she was, without learning much that was helpful.

Irving speaks about country clubs, unrelenting politeness, getting jobs and rent-controlled apartments because of family connections and refers to this all as white privilege. But they are all things that are completely alien to me and many, many other white people. She does a bit of lip service to class differences among white people, but I honestly felt like she just stuck that sentence in at the end, because she continued to muddy the waters by conflating white privilege and the privilege that comes from being wealthy through the entire book. Race and class are entwined, but they aren't the same. My issue with her treatment of these issues is that there is such a thing as white privilege, but she is conflating it with class privilege.

The book was mostly about Irving's journey and was introspective and navel-gazey but provided little real insight or advice that would be helpful to other white people seeking to gain perspective on race. Repeatedly she pointed out situations where her privilege helped her or conversations where she made unintentionally problematic statements or situations that put up barriers to people of color, but didn't actually explain what about the situations or statements were racist, much less describe helpful alternatives that would have made more sense. This was very frustrating as it did not help me understand the issues at all.

Only near the end - around the last 50 pages of the 250-page book - did I find the real meat of the book, and even that was fairly lean meat. For instance, at a conference when she asked a black man what he does for work, someone later explained to her that that question is a "social locater" and many people who aren't white Americans find it offensive. That was an insight that I found actually helpful, but she provided few alternatives of things to ask someone to get to know them. Likewise, in another section she presents a list of dominant white culture behaviors, such as conflict avoidance, defensiveness, and competitiveness, which I found rather enlightening, because I didn't realize these were not common traits in non-white culture. But it would have been much more helpful if it was more than just a list - some explanations or advice about beliefs and behaviors more common in other cultures would have been valuable. Here, as in several parts, she came quite close to laying out something concrete and helpful, but didn't quite get there.

This was sort of a memoir and sort of a guide for white people trying not to be racists, but it didn't really deliver either. I read this for the community read committee at my library, and I really like the idea of planning programs around the idea of white people acknowledging that whiteness is a culture and trying to change things a bit, but I don't know about trying to sell people on this book. In addition to everything I mentioned above, I also noticed that many of her cultural references were very dated, like I Love Lucy and Gilligan's Island. When choosing a book we always keep a diverse population in mind, and consider teenagers and younger adults and I just don't think this book would really speak to them. Also, some of her revelations are things I just don't think would be shocking to most people these days. For instance, when planning a trip for inner city students to attend a dance performance, she was shocked at how many of the students were black. (Then again, when she was a teenager she thought that feminists were "poorly-raised women" who should stop complaining, so that just goes to show you what sort of a mindset she comes from.)

Near the end she mentions teaching a class called White People Challenging Racism at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, a class I have seen listed in their course catalogue many times and sort of puzzled over and moved on. I'm much more intrigued by it now, because I'm very interested in the sorts of things she talks about in her book. I doubt I'll actually sign up for the class, but I'd be willing to read another book (or article - an article would be even better!) that provides actual advice on these topics. If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

I didn't dislike this as much as it sounds like I did. I definitely had to push myself through, but I found the topic interesting, it just didn't really deliver on its promises, and now I feel like I need something more.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Roller Girl

Roller Girl by Vanessa North (2016)

Tina Durham is a transwoman who used to be a pro athlete and is now working as a personal trainer. One day when her washing machine floods her house, the plumber who arrives is not what she expected. Joanna "Joe Mama" Delario is not only good at fixing things, but she's cute and she's the coach of a roller derby team. Tina soon joins the team and starts dating Joe, but Joe doesn't want anyone else on the team to know. This, of course, does not go well, and Tina and Joe find their relationship complicated and frustrating.

This is a very short novel - at 130 pages I think it qualifies as a novella. It's told entirely from Tina's first-person perspective, which is different from most romance novels I've read. Usually you get an alternating perspective of each of the love interests, which I think adds to both the passion and the tension. The criticism I've heard most about this book is that the romance isn't very palpable. Many readers just aren't feeling it. While it didn't fall totally flat for me, I think it could have been improved if we had gotten inside Joe's head more. I really wanted to get to know her more than I did.

Tina wasn't quite as fleshed-out as she could have been either. We know that she is transgender and was previously considered a man, that she is recently married to a woman, and there are hints about a poor relationship with her family. But we didn't get the full story on any of those things which, again, I think is because the book was so short. I wanted more though. This really could have easily been a 300+ page novel - there was enough here, definitely. I think that would have made Tina feel more real to me.

Otherwise, I found it pretty fun. I love roller derby! I love badass women with pun-based names pushing and shoving each other while roller skating! The female camaraderie was one of the best parts of this story, though it was those same friendships that complicated things for Tina and Joe.

There's a subplot too, about one of Tina's clients. Jeremy is younger and very competitive and Tina begins to suspect that he has an eating disorder because he is sometimes weak or faint when they meet. Their relationship, although it was a professional one, really did mean more to both of them and I found this part of the story very sweet. I wonder if he will star in a future book, because this is actually third in a series, and the first two center around two of Tina's friends, Ben and Eddie.

Although it's not without its faults, I found this story pretty enjoyable. If you're looking for a f/f romance this may be a good choice, though it will definitely help if you are interested in roller derby!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Becoming Nicole

Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt (2015)

Kelly and Wayne Maines adopted infant twin boys, but from a very early age it was obvious that Wyatt didn't consider himself a boy at all. As the twins grew, Kelly learned everything she could about being transgender and how to help her kid be the girl she knew she was. Gradually, Wyatt began wearing his hair longer, adding feminine colors to his wardrobe, and eventually changing his name to Nicole. School was challenging though, and the middle school that Jonas and Nicole attended in Orono, ME eventually made Nicole stop using the girls' bathroom after a complaint. Thus began a tumultuous couple of years in which the family filed a lawsuit against the school, Jonas and Nicole had a very tough time at school and ended up changing schools a couple of times, and Wayne had to live apart from the rest of the family because of his job.

This isn't the first book I've read about the experience of being transgender, but I still learned new things. It was pretty short and moved quickly with its short chapters, and even the science parts were easy to digest. For people who are still uncomfortable with the whole idea that transgender people even exist, I think this would actually be a very good book to start with. Something about the way this story is told from the very beginning of Nicole's existence just makes it all unfold in a way that feels perfectly natural. Of course it is natural, but my point is how well that is illustrated in this story.

One big challenge from within the Maines family was that Wayne couldn't really warm up to the idea that his son was really his daughter. You'd think that having another son would cushion that blow a bit, but it really took him a long time. However, even this conservative traditional guy who couldn't quite wrap his mind around this concept never for a moment considered that any of it would mean that he didn't care as much about Nicole. He knew he needed to accept her for who she is and protect her against those who wouldn't, and he rose to the challenge quite magnificently.

There were moments reading this book that I got SO MAD. I mean, people can be incredibly stupid and mean. The kid who complained about Nicole using the girls' bathroom, which led to a years-long legal battle, was influenced by his awful grandfather who was involved with one of those hateful allegedly-Christian groups who want to get in everybody's personal business. They acted like Nicole was some sort of sexual predator for using the girls' bathroom. (And I just could not help but picture that kid as Draco Malfoy, but that's probably because I was listening to Harry Potter while reading this.) Anyway this whole bathroom issue has just gotten all out-of-proportion on a national level, and doesn't even make any logical sense. Can we please just let people pee in peace? As long as it's in a bathroom of some sort, we should all be satisfied. But I digress.

If you want to learn more, Nicole did a TED Talk that's only around 13 minutes long and is totally worth watching. I especially like the part where she brags about being better at sports than her brother, and says she can hit a home run and could do it in high heels. (Ha!) And of course, read the book! It's short!

Other books on the topic that I recommend are She's Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan (who was mentioned in this book as well) and Andrew Solomon's Far From the Tree which has a chapter on transgender kids, and which is on my extremely short list of books that everybody should read.

I had heard of this book because it's popular right now, but the only reason I actually picked it up is because it's on the short list for our community read, so I had to read it. But I'm really glad I did! Not only does it take place kind of near where I grew up in Maine (and at one point the family visited the town of Machias, with which I am extremely familiar), but it was a really well-told story about the journey of a normal family facing unusual challenges that just should not have been quite so difficult for them. They seem like really nice people and I'm so glad things have worked out. Nicole seems like a great kid and she deserves every opportunity for happiness. Her story is sad and frustrating at times, but mostly it is inspiring.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Ten Authors I've Only Read One Book From But NEED To Read More

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week is Top Ten Tuesday REWIND - go back and do a topic you missed over the years or recently or a topic you really want to revisit. I'm picking the topic from Sept. 6, 2014: Ten Authors I've Only Read One Book From But NEED To Read More.

1. Peter Clines
I loved 14. Loved it. I recommend it all the time. Another book came out after it called The Fold, but somehow I haven't managed to read it. Why? Am I worried it won't be as good? I don't even know.

2. Peter Heller
(I guess I'm starting with Peters.) The Dog Stars was so incredibly good, and I've heard that his next book The Painter was also very good, but I have yet to see for myself.

3. W. Somerset Maugham
I read The Painted Veil mostly because it takes place in Hong Kong, but I was captivated by Maugham's writing. I'd probably enjoy his other books also.

4. Wilkie Collins
The Woman in White was so wonderful and satisfying, and I think maybe his other books aren't quite as good but I'd probably still like them.

5. Deb Caletti
I hadn't even heard of her until a friend bought me The Fortunes of Indigo Skye. After I read it I went to the teen section of the library and saw that she has a ton of books. Which is totally great! I should read some of them!

6. Courtney Milan
There were so many things I loved about The Suffragette Scandal! Courtney Milan has lots of other books to choose from, so I have many hours of romance-reading to look forward to.

7. Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven is just one of my favorite books ever, I think. Although Mandel has written other books, I am apparently just going to read Station Eleven over and over again rather than trying any of them. (Although The Lola Quartet sounds really good!)

8. Jennifer Crusie
I finally just read Bet Me about a million years after it was published, and now I know where I'll look when I'm in the mood for chick lit.

9. Dan Chaon
His collection of short stories, Stay Awake, was deeply unsettling. He has several other books, all of which I've heard described as anything from "haunting" to "terrifying." He is definitely up my alley.

10. Hugh Howey
I gave Wool a five-star review and then didn't even continue to read the series. Why? What is wrong with me?

Well, now I feel a little stressed about everything I want to read. Thanks, Top Ten Tuesday! This is totally undoing all the good from getting rid of my To Read list.

Do you have authors you really like, but stopped after one book? Why do we do this to ourselves? Is it the fear that the other books won't be nearly as good?

Monday, August 8, 2016

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling (1997), narrated by Jim Dale

I first read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in October of 2000, quickly catching up on the series and then eagerly awaiting each new volume and devouring them as they were published. But it's been a very long time and I wanted to relive the magic, this time on audio.

From the very beginning I was delighted to experience this story again. I had forgotten lot of the details, particularly at the very beginning. The novel opens the night Harry's parents are killed and he is left to live with the Dursley's, though in my memory it only began just before he left for Hogwarts. I had forgotten about the letters Hogwarts sent him that the Dursleys wouldn't let him read, and the lengths to which they tried to escape the numerous continuing letters. Nor did I remember that it was Hagrid who Harry met first, who hunted him down on an island the family tried escaping too.

As Harry sets off for Hogwarts, he meets the Weasleys for the first time. Oh, the Weasleys! It was with glee that I thought about how close he and Ron would become, and with a bit of sadness that I thought about how not all of the siblings would survive the series. When Harry and Ron first meet Hermione they don't like her, but of course become good friends during the course of the book. And the foreboding first encounters with Draco Malfoy! And Professor Snape! And all the other professors and new classmates. Harry's first exposure to magic, first time riding a broom, first time playing Quidditch was all fun to experience again. It was so bittersweet to read about these early days, knowing everything that would happen later.

Jim Dale has a good reputation as a narrator, though some people I know had problems with how he did Hermione's voice. It didn't bother me though. I was instantly struck by his pronunciation of Voldemort (the "t" is silent), which I didn't know was the correct pronunciation until a few months ago. Why has this been a secret when the audio book has existed for so long? At any rate, this was altogether a great choice for audio!

I've blown through most of my Audible credits a little more than halfway through the year so I'm trying to take advantage of audio books that I can download for free through the library. That's how I got Sorcerer's Stone, and I'm now on hold for Chamber of Secrets. In the meantime, I also bought The Night Circus which was on sale through Audible for $3 or so and is also read by Jim Dale.

I'm not actually sure if I'll listen to the entire Harry Potter series. I hope so, but some of the later books are pretty long so that might be a challenge since I don't do well with long audio books. Whether or not I finish, it's a lot of fun right now!

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Hand to Mouth

Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado (2014)

Late one night, Linda Tirado was scrolling through an online forum when she saw the question "Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?" Tirado was well-versed in being poor so she answered the question as best she could. Her response went viral. Her words eloquently explained what it means to be poor in America, all its inconveniences, and what is necessary to get by when you don't have much. She has expanded her off-the-cuff essay in this book, Hand to Mouth.

Full of her own experiences and observations, Tirado lays it all on the line simply, but with humor. She also doesn't hold back her own mistakes, fully owning up to poor choices she has made. As she points out, we are all human and all of us make bad decisions now and again or do things that aren't good for us.

Tirado has moved in and out of poverty, an experience that is probably more common than we think, and has learned a lot along the way. She makes some really good points.

For instance, the way we tend to judge poor people for having kids they can't afford. I do it too. (I've judged my own parents for having 5 kids on such a low income.) But Tirado points out kids don't actually need all the crap their wealthy parents buy them, or sign them up for, that what they really need their parents to do are build pillow forts with them or play outside in the mud. Of course she's right. Kids actually don't care if they have the latest toys if they haven't been taught that they should want them.

Another point she makes is that when poor people spend money on things like cigarettes and booze and junk food, it's because they also deserve a bit of pleasure every day. Why should they scrimp for their whole entire lives? At the beginning of the book she says "It is not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small pleasures so that someday I can make a single large purchase." That makes a lot of sense. Any amount of saving up doesn't make you not poor anymore. You might as well get whatever pleasure you can out of life.

It's true that she lumps all "rich" people together, but then again don't we often lump all of the "poor" together as well? She makes fun of rich people a bit, but it's not mean-spirited and all of her criticisms are totally fair.

Short, conversational, and easy to read, this whole book was under 200 pages and there was a lot of white space, but it contains SO MUCH food for thought. A colleague picked this for a book group that I'm not actually able to attend, but I wish I could because I feel like we all need to talk more about poverty. This book is similar to Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, but up-to-date and more authentic. It's also a great complement to Matthew Desmond's Evicted, which I recently finished.

There are a lot of books about poverty and economic inequality being published right now. A couple of others I'm interested in are White Trash by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Are there any others that I should be keeping an eye out for? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Ten Books I'd Buy Right This Second If Someone Handed Me a Fully Loaded Gift Card

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is Ten Books You'd Buy Right This Second If Someone Handed You A Fully Loaded Gift Card.

Now, I hardly ever buy books. I'm a librarian in a public library with a healthy budget and a really good collection so whatever I want is at my fingertips. But sometimes, sometimes, I just want to get something in my grabby little hands. In recent years I've been buying certain books after I read a library copy because I love them so much I want to own a copy to read again later (whether or not I actually ever do!) and I've also started reading romance and sometimes they are most easily obtainable by buying the ebooks, especially if they're self-published or from a small publisher.

So I'm just going to list whatever comes into my head right now as I fantasize that I've been set loose with book credit.

1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
I actually have been planning to buy a copy as soon as I can get myself to Porter Square Books. I loved this book when I read it, and now I will be reading it again because I suggested it for my library's Community Read. I am dying to get to it super soon!

2. The Rogue Not Taken by Sarah MacLean
This is the first in her new series, Scandal and Scoundrel. It has a pretty dress on the cover and I do like the feel of a mass market paperback in my hands. She's such a clever, witty author. I adored Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover.

3. City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin
I am only vaguely planning to read this because it's been so long since I read the previous books that I worry it won't be awesome for me because I've forgotten so much. But I bought the others for my e-reader since they're so long and heavy in hardcover (even though The Passage disappeared from my account and B&N seems to not think I own it, grrr!) My book-related fantasies involved re-reading the first two just before starting this one.

4. Dreamland by Sam Quinones
I've been wanting to read this book about the opiate epidemic ever since my friend Kevin reviewed it for the Christian Science Monitor. It's not the sort of book I would normally buy, but every time I think I'm finally going to read it, my library's copy is checked out. So maybe I should just have it on hand.

5. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
In this fantasy, I can time travel apparently because this book won't be published until September. I guess I'd use my gift card to bribe someone for a galley? Anyhow, this is my number one top book that I'm excited about for the fall. I loved Rules of Civility, but this one has the added bonus of being set at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, the very same hotel in which I stayed last year.

6. A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihara
This was on my list of books I want to read in the second half of 2016 (which I'm actually doing ok with, now that I look at it again) and because it's so lengthy and also popular, I think it would be good to own so I can just read it whenever I decide to, without having to be on hold for a library copy.

7. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
I've been wanting to read this again for quite a while now, and classics are good to own! I'd be sure to buy an edition with illustrations.

8. Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty
I think this is going to be a fun book, if Big Little Lies was any indication, and fun books should definitely be read in summer. I'm on hold at the library, but it's super popular so who knows when I'll actually get it?

9. Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Also a popular book I'm on hold for, but I'd love to read it sometime soon.

10. Who Do You Love by Jennifer Weiner
I'm falling behind on her books, because she has a memoir out this fall and I still haven't read her last novel! It was on my January list of 2015 releases I hadn't gotten to yet, and I still haven't gotten to it. But I still want to read it!

What would you buy right now if someone handed you a gift card?

Monday, August 1, 2016


Uprooted by Naomi Novik (2015)

In the village of Dvernik lives a young woman named Agneiszka, near the edge of the evil Wood. Guarding all the people of the valley from the Wood's power is a wizard called the Dragon. But the people of Dvernik pay a high price for his protection: every ten years he plucks a young woman from the village who he keeps for ten years until he sets her free and chooses another. Agneiszka dreads the choosing, not because she fears being taken, but because they know that her best friend Kasia will be the unlucky one. She is the smartest, most beautiful, most talented, and she has been preparing for her fate for her whole life. But to everyone's shock the Dragon picks Agneiszka.

Inspired by fairy tales and the story of Baba Yaga, this story has many fantastical elements. Girls locked in towers, spells, a magic wood - but unlike many traditional fairy tales, Uprooted has a complicated plot that makes sense, and great character development. When Agneiszka is first taken to the Dragon's tower, it reminded me a little of Beauty and the Beast (just without the talking teapot.) But as Agneiszka begins to learn about her own powers, and the full implications about the power of the Wood, things got much more interesting.

The most enjoyable part of the novel might be the lush, descriptive writing. It's easy to get lost in Novik's descriptions of the spells, the tower, the Wood, everything that Agneiszka sees, tastes, or smells. Here is the description when she enters the Wood:

"The trees were great pillars in a dark endless hall, well apart from one another, their twisting gnarled roots blanketed in dark green moss, small feathery ferns curled up close for the night. Tall pale mushrooms grew in hosts like toy soldiers marching. The snow hadn't reached the ground beneath the trees, not even now in the deep of winter. A thin layer of frost clung to the leaves and fine branches. I heard an owl calling somewhere distantly as I picked my way carefully through the trees."

And this, later:

"I should have been spent. But magic was still alive and shivering in my belly, too much of it with nowhere to go, as if I were an over-ripe tomato that wanted to burst its skin for relief, and there was an army outside our doors."

I also loved the setting, which I suppose is a magical version of Eastern Europe. The power of the Wood was super creepy, with heart-trees that wrapped themselves around victims and held them there forever, not quiet dead, but not alive either. Those who escaped the Wood were still corrupted, but it wasn't always obvious until people around them began hurting themselves or others. The images of the Wood's reach are dark and haunting and I won't soon forget them.

This novel is sometimes tagged as being young adult, but I'm not sure whether or not it is. Agneiszka is a teenager when the story opens, and I think teens who like fantasy would probably really enjoy this book. At the same time, parts of it felt pretty dense, and at one point in the story I began feeling a bit bogged down by everything that was happening. I had to force my way through for a while until I started feeling the forward momentum again. I don't know if that was me or an issue with the pacing of the book, but either way it luckily didn't last long.

I don't normally pick up fantasy books, especially those that are based on fairy tales, but I kept hearing such good things about Uprooted that I didn't want to let it pass me by. It's a great story to lose oneself in, and I found it quite enjoyable and satisfying.