Late to the party

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I’m calling these my “late to the party” books. When they were ragingly popular, I checked them out from the library and couldn’t get into them. I gave up.

But then came audible. And now these are the most recent five-star books on my list.

The Longer Version

This spring, I listened to My Brilliant Friend on my way to and from work each day. It took forever–both the story and the length of the book are epic–but it was so worth it. I loved the book and wrote about it on Goodreads (as did Rick Riordan in a post that made me even more of a fan girl than I already was):

Elena Ferrante gives us the gift of exquisite (sometimes excruciating) close ups, full of richly textured detail, alongside a ruthlessness about Elena’s inner life. She also makes the squabbles and foibles of a neighborhood I’ll never know become epic stand-ins for all of human life. I’ve never read a book like this.

Then, while driving cross-country with my family this summer, I tuned into A Man Called Ove at the recommendation of my brother-in-law. I was immediately captured by Backman’s use of free indirect style to create an unforgettable voice. I fell in love with Ove with all his curmudgeon ways, as lots of others had managed to do before me. Over on Goodreads, I wrote this in mid-book:

As for the story, the voice makes it astonishingly funny with an undercurrent of grief. Can’t wait to keep listening.

And this when I finished:

Great use of free indirect style & metaphor to create a character so real he can’t die.

So even though I was late to the party on both of these titles, I’m so glad I finally arrived.

Me & Marvin Gardens by A.S. King


Me and Me and Marvin Gardens

Oddly enough, the last time I had enough get-up-and-go to write a review, it was for another of A.S. King’s books. Perhaps that is praise enough.

King has woven many of the themes from her YA work into this weird, charming middle grade, and I loved that–I found it compelling to see toxic masculinity and environmental degradation through the eyes of a younger, more vulnerable kid.

The kid himself–Obe–is sweet, sensitive, and smart, but not precious. I think there are a LOT of boys like him in the world, but not very many books about those boys. As a mom to one, I was grateful to see him being a protagonist. He’s an uncertain, tentative protagonist, sure, but he’s also a protagonist with a real spine (a spine he puts to formidable use in standing up for his friend Annie in one of the most moving sequences in the novel).

And my own kids were wide eyed at there being a  book about a family who lived on the last wild patch by the creek in a development of “new spacious homes!”–since that’s essentially where we live.

My main critique of the book is that it comes across as a little too didactic, and I think in a large part that’s because of the “told” style King chose. Every chapter starts with “There were/was…” and it’s clear by the end that the novel is positioned like To Kill A Mockingbird: an older narrator re-inhabiting a childhood space.

That said, I think the didactic component might work quite well for a younger middle grade audience. For example, the “Earth Facts” on the announcements at Obe’s school–and his responses to them–will feel very urgent, important, and realistic to lots of kids who read them. My 8yo, for one!

As for the surreal element (Marvin Gardens himself), I’m not sure it worked as well as surrealism typically does in King’s novels because ultimately Marvin functioned more like a plot device than anything.

Still, I am glad I read it and plan to recommend it to several readers I know.

Still Life With Tornado by A.S. King

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A feminist, surrealist YA title in shades of Vonnegut. Ostensibly the story of a 16yo girl calling out her family on its toxicity and lies, TORNADO is really a bold invitation for young women to welcome, love, and nurture of all their different selves.

An invitation to tell themselves and those around them the truth.

An invitation do the work they love even when others undermine it–or them.

In the present, Sarah is avoiding school and art, following a homeless man in her neighborhood, and frequently bumping into her 10yo, 23yo, and 40yo selves. She hasn’t seen her brother Bruce since the family took a trip to Mexico when she was 10. Interspersed with modern day chapters are short monologues from her mother’s point of view as well as chapters for each of the days of the Mexico trip.

But what makes this book go beyond an issue book is King’s mastery of motif. For example, on the Mexico trip, the ocean is so churned up that it’s not clear or blue but dull brown and full of churned up seaweed, like a toilet bowl full of diarrhea, according to Sarah.

Later, as she learns the truth of her family, she talks about living in a toxic stew of lies and ruin…but the images of the ocean in Mexico so well established that it creates echoes seamlessly.

The book has hundreds of layers like that, overlapping images and phrases and ideas that come back again & again to create new light, new energy, new meaning.

TORNADO is an impressive feat from a leading literary writer.

Disclaimer: I moved this book up on my TBR after King told me and my students recently on a Skype visit that this book “hit too close to home” because she’d stayed in an abusive marriage herself.
As a result, I find myself keenly aware that this book is also a story of domestic violence–even though that violence happens only on the edges of Sarah’s awareness. But to say it’s a massive influence on everything in the story is an understatement, so it probably deserves a heads up.

Political Action Training

Yesterday, I offered a political action training class for any interested adults at my church.

So many folks asked for my handouts from the event that I’m posting it here as a single PDF: Political Action Training. Feel free to share the PDF with others.

NOTE: To be fair, these are strategies that can be helpful no matter which side of the politics you’re on, and they’re mostly a combination of what I’ve learned about teaching students to read non-fiction and reading resources myself, most notably the Indivisible Guide (linked here), which I cannot recommend enough!

Credit to Maureen Hill (2017) for the Purposes of Nonfiction slides and to EasyBib for the how-to-read-news infographic.


The Inquisitor’s Tale


…Won a Newbery honor while I was reading it!

I loved the story of three unlikely friends going on a quest to save copies of the Talmud, and I loved the way the author imagined what the “rest of the world” really thought in a time of religious persecution.

The method of telling–sort of a middle grade Canterbury Tales– was enchanting, as were the historical notes at the end and all the “meta” moments about storytelling in between.

*SPOILERS* Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

At times, it felt like a highlight reel, sort of a “Harry Potter, this is…your life!” with lots of nods to fandom, especially alternate relationships & their inevitable trajectories (cough, cough, Ron and Hermione).

Other times it was surprising to the point of disbelief, & not the “inevitable surprises” more typical of Rowling (cough, cough, Delphi’s parents).

And it lacked the strength of its own convictions about the Scorpious /Albus relationship.

…but I loved it anyhow. Still. I loved it for:

  • Seeing Snape soften over time and become the best version of himself.
  • Hearing Dumbledore name himself “tricky and dangerous” (something I’d never even considered until I read Rowell’s CARRY ON).
  • Witnessing Hermione as Minister of Magic, as a warrior (a la Princess Leia), and as a mean professor.
  • Remembering just how important Neville Longbottom really is.
  • Reading really great lines again, like “She’s weaponized her library!” and “those Dumbledore terrorists” and “Thank Dumbledore.”

And I loved it as an adult. As a mom. Watching Harry (at exactly my own age) feeling as lost in parenting as I do sometimes–somehow that made me feel less alone than all the zillions of parenting books in the world could have done.

Most of all, I loved it because I was reading a new HP story when I never thought I would again.

(Yes, yes, it was a play. Yes, yes, it would be better performed. Yes, yes, it would be even better as a novel. But none of that *mattered* to me very much.)

Vacation YA

An old friend messaged me and asked for some great YA to read over vacation. She mentioned that she’d really enjoyed Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun, Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, and John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars.

She wanted to know: what’s next?

I was happy to answer–and then someone else wanted the list and someone else and pretty soon I thought I might as well make a list.

So first off, everything else by Jandy Nelson, Rainbow Rowell, and John Green is good. My top Green pic is Looking for Alaska and my top Rowell pick is Fangirl (though I loved Landline and Attachments and Carry On and her short story In My True Love Gave To Me and…you get the picture).

But what about after that? Here’s some of what I’ve read in the last two years that might make a great ‘next read.’

If you loved the swoon:

  • Simon vs. The Homo Sapien Agenda by Becky Albertelli
  • Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum
  • The Boy In the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds
  • My True Love Gave To Me, edited by Stephanie Perkins

If you loved the smart snark

  • Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy
  • The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E Lockhart
  • Fans of the Impossible Life by Kate Scelsa (great read-alike for fans of Perks of Being a Wallflower)

If you loved the love with a bit of sadness

  • All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
  • If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

If you loved the characters grappling with serious issues

  • Exit, Pursued By a Bear by E.K. Johnston
  • The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth

If you loved the can’t-put-it-down-ness

  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
  • Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld (which is two books in one. The “can’t put it down” book is the one with the black pages)

Or, if you’re looking to try some magical realism

  • The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen
  • Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Or, if you’re looking to try fantasy

  • Ash and Bramble by Sarah Prineas (I pitch this to my students as a feminist retelling of Cinderella that starts in the fairy godmother’s sweatshop)
  • The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
  • The Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

Or, if you’re looking for a departure into gorgeous novels written in verse

  • One by Sarah Crossan
  • Ask Me How I Got Here by Christine Heppermen
  • House Arrest by K.A. Holt

Or if you’re looking for some great dystopia-influenced stuff

  • Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King
  • Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neil

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