Zoella’s Book Club

Recently I’ve been telling people that I should give Twitter 101 courses, because I love Twitter and I do a good job of explaining what it is and how to use it to people who are baffled by the very concept. But YouTube is like a 200-level course–I just barely understand it myself, I’m not sure I could explain a thing about it to anyone else. I’m not talking instructional videos or Carpool Karaoke, I mean vloggers and YouTube celebrities. It is a weird concept–people, just, like, talk about their lives? Online? And millions of people watch them do it? I have just started poking around the edge of YouTube, but I can see why people get hooked on watching these vlogs. One of the most famous YouTubers out there is Zoella, a twenty-something British girl who is known for make-up videos but whose empire has spread to novels, bath products, home goods, etc. I think Zoella’s adorable–her life might be a million miles apart from mine in every way, but I find her videos super entertaining and I actually find her makeup recommendations very helpful. And lots of other people do to, since more than TEN MILLION people subscribe to her YouTube channel.

What does this have to do with books? WH Smith, a British bookstore, decided to capitalize on Zoella’s popularity by having her select some books for an online book club that launched a couple of weeks ago. And the plan is clearly working–apparently sales of some of these books increased more than 1000% after they received her seal of approval. Zoella’s audience is heavily weighted towards teenaged girls, so when I checked out the book club selections I was expecting to see a pile of cheesy YA books. And they are mostly YA romance books, but they’re good ones! And the list includes a remarkable number of things that we’ve also reviewed here. Zoella’s eight books included Fangirl, All the Bright Places, and Everything, Everything Also included in the list was We Were Liars, which I never wrote about here but thought was really interesting. So, apparently our taste aligns very closely with hip young vloggers!

After seeing how many of the books on this list I loved, I tracked down The Sky Is Everywhere and I’ve got the rest of the books on my library list. If you’re interested in some sweet, sad, modern teen romance, Zoella’s list is pretty solid. Plus she does a really solid makeup tutorial.

 

 

Eligible

As I’ve said more than once before, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book of all time and I keep a close eye on adaptations. I may not like every version of the story people cook up, but I love weighing them against each other and seeing what tiny improvements each version can make. Just recently I rewatched the Keira Knightley movie, and while I find almost everything in that version to be not quite as good as the 1995 BBC mini-series, I was reminded that the movie does a GREAT job of using clothes and houses to really play up the class differences between the Bennets and the Bingley/Darcy crowd.

Anyway, when I saw that Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest book Eligible was a modern version of Pride and Prejudice, I was very interested. Sittenfeld is probably best known for her first novel Prep, about a girl at a New England boarding school. I actually thought Prep was incredibly grim and unpleasant to read, but I quite liked American Wife, which was an imagined, fictional version of Laura Bush’s journey to become a somewhat unwilling First Lady. So I went into Eligible fairly ambivalent about Sittenfeld and I’m still not sure how I feel, although   did enjoy the book.

There’s no point summarizing the plot–this is a very loyal retelling of Jane Austen’s classic story about the Bennet sisters, moved forward in time to modern-day Cincinnati. To be completely honest, I went into the book thinking that there was no way anything could live up the Lizzie Bennet Diaries–I LOVED that video adaptation of the story and I couldn’t imagine another modern telling matching up. But Eligible did win me over, at least a bit, as it went along.

There were a few things I thought it did really well:

  1. Sittenfeld really hit it dead on with loads of her cultural references as she moved the characters to the present day. For example, Jane is a yoga teacher, Darcy is a surgeon, and Kitty and Lydia are totally into CrossFit. Over and over again she would introduce a character with his or her modern identity and I would say, “Oh, of course! That makes total sense.”
  2. In the books, the Bennet sisters are in the 15-21 age range and most modern updates up that a bit to make everyone legal, but even my beloved Lizzie Bennet Diaries only puts the older girls in their late twenties. In Eligible, Jane is turning 40 and Lizzie is right behind her. Which is perfect! A huge part of the original story is the pressure the girls feel to get married, and that panic rings so much more true in the modern story when Jane and Lizzie are both approaching 40. To me, this was the one thing that Eligible has really added to the Pride and Prejudice oeuvre.
  3. Darcy and Lizzie came off pretty hot, actually, which doesn’t always happen.

But I have to admit that there were a few things that didn’t quite work for me:

  1. This is often a problem with Pride and Prejudice adaptations, but it takes the book a while to get going. If you’re Jane Austen, I’m happy to read a third of the book where people futz around before the love story kicks in. For other mere mortals, it means that I spend quite a few chapters being like, “Come on, come on . . . “
  2. I would say that 90% of the characters, plot, and structure of the book are straight from the source material. The characters have the same names, the chapters are structured the same ways, etc. So when she does make a change, it must mean something, right? There were two major places where Eligible diverged from the original and I am still not quite sure why. First, Wickham is split into two characters, which gives a whole new spin to a couple of key plot points and I can only assume that this is because we all have larger social networks today? Hmm. And second, this book proceeds a bit past where the original ends and . . .  again, I’m not sure I see the point.
  3. Lydia. Oooh, Lydia is problematic. In order for the plot to move along, Lydia has to do some fairly outrageous things. Jane Austen’s take seems to be that Lydia was, if not evil, certainly dumb and thoughtless; by the end of the book (200-year-old spoilers), Austen seems to have decided that Lydia has made her bed and now she can lie in it. In our previous discussions of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, we all talked about how much we liked their take on Lydia, which made her much more sympathetic and made her actions more understandable. Sittenfeld’s Lydia is pretty much in the dumb and thoughtless mold, but the way Wickham is now handled makes the end of her story feel quite different. I don’t feel like Lydia has to be sympathetic–a big message in the story is about family loyalty, even when you might not like that family–but it was a significant enough change that it felt like Sittenfeld was trying to make a statement. And I think that statement was, even if you’re dumb and mean things might work out if you have a responsible older sister? I don’t know.

Overall, I thought Eligible was snappy and fun to read and if you’re a Jane Austen completist like I am, you’ll enjoy it. But if I am going to recommend Pride and Prejudice-inspired material to someone, this ones falls down on the list under the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Bride and PrejudiceLongbourn and even Bridget Jones’s Diary.

The Fifth Wave

A podcast that I was listening to recently (Extra Hot Great, which I mentioned in my post) was dividing post-apocalyptic/end-of-world stories into two categories: those that focus on what it’s like as the world is falling apart and those that focus on how people live after things have fallen apart. I had never quite thought of it this way before, but it is a great way to describe the differences and it helped me figure out why I love some end-of-the-world novels and find others way too stressful. Apparently, I like reading about post-disaster life and how people keep going–Station Eleven and The Hunger Games are examples, where most of the story is about people living in the “new normal” of a world after life as we know it has ended. I guess these books feel far enough removed from my own life that I can maintain some emotional distance? But I am an anxious enough person that I find stories that show the process of civilization breaking down to be almost unbearable–when the author’s goal is to show you how close we are to this new post-apocalyptic word, that’s too close for me! I really enjoyed David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, but there was one section of it that so powerfully described a world in which the Internet had gone down and international borders were closed . . . I don’t even like to think about it too much.

All of this to say that The Fifth Wave is one of those as-the-world-is-falling apart books that I found really anxiety-inducing, but may be right up your alley! This is the first in a YA trilogy in which aliens have come to earth and are in the process of exterminating humans/cleaning up the planet. The story follows a couple of different teenagers who are trying to survive on their own in a world where virtually all other humans are dead. There’s a teeny bit of teen romance that I found somewhat unrealistic (I think all these kids would have too much PTSD to do much other than huddle in a ball on the floor, but whatever) but most of the book is about them fighting, running, and trying to figure out the right next step in a world where everything seems doomed. The main story is set a few weeks/months after the aliens have arrived, but there are lots of flashbacks to them arriving and starting the whole “no humans” process, so you really see the whole process play out. It’s a plot-intense book–the action moves fast and I was frantically turning pages to find out what happens. And while this is definitely not my preferred type of end-of-the-world story, it was compelling enough that requested the next book in series from the library.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Immediate post-apocalyptic adventure

You might also like:
 Any of the books I mentioned above, or the movie Children of Men, if you feel the need for a little cry about the state of the world. But we’ve all seen enough depressing things–go read something funny! Some of my laugh-out-loud books include Let’s Pretend this Never Happened by Jenny Lawson, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Can You Keep a Secret by Sophie Kinsella, and I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron.

Podcasts and a Scrappy Little Broadway Show I Have High Hopes For

I wish I had some good books to recommend here, but I’ve been in an odd rut lately of reading things that weren’t bad,, but ended up being vaguely disappointing. (I’m looking at you, Bradstreet Gate, because if your whole plot is centered around a murder mystery, you need to TELL ME WHO COMMITTED THE MURDER.)

But that doesn’t mean I’m not consuming media, because my lengthy commute to work means that I listen to A LOT of podcasts. Sometimes I feel as thought half the things I say start with, “So I was listening to this podcast . . .” But I just hear so many interesting things on so many different topics, told in such a personal way–it feels like I have very smart friends riding along with me in my car as I negotiate the DC highways. I do listen to a few of the big, famous podcasts that I don’t feel the need to plug–the NerdistSerial, and Pop Culture Happy Hour are all great, but if you listen  to podcasts at all you probably knew that already. But there are some smaller podcasts that keep me sane and entertained:

Read it and Weep calls itself a good podcast about bad books, movies, and TV, and the general model is that three friends (plus rotating guests) read or watch something and then get together to make fun of it. It started when these guys decided to read the Twilight books so they could mock them in a knowledgeable way, but has expanded to them watching and reading the occasional good thing, or a childhood favorite, and they even take sponsorships/suggestions from listeners. Although the episodes where they review something bad are still the most fun–you’ve never heard anything as sad as these 20-something dudes trying to find something nice to say about Fifty Shades of Grey. I like it because the commentary is truly funny, but also smart–they’re good at breaking down what does or doesn’t work about a particular piece of media and they’re happy to admit when they actually enjoyed something. They are also quick to call out sexism or racism or other things that make them feel gross, so I can rely on them getting upset about the things that make me upset. But in a much more funny way.

Another favorite pop culture podcast is Extra Hot Great, a podcast about TV by the people who run previously.tv (and used to run Television Without Pity). This is another funny one, with smart criticism about TV. They do different features, including one I love called Is This Worse than Jazz, where they debate whether a particular pop culture item is worse than jazz (maybe this only works if you hate jazz). They also do a lengthy quiz each week, which allows me to shout answers out loud in my car.

I first found You Must Remember This through her series on Hollywood and the Manson murders, but I’ve found all of Karina Longworth’s podcasts about Hollywood history fascinating. She tends to do “seasons” that focus on a specific topic, such as Manson, the studio system, or the current series on the blacklist. One of the disappointing books that I read in recent weeks was about a scandalous Hollywood murder in the 1920s, and I think I didn’t like it because was drier and less sympathetic than Longworth’s calm, gentle storytelling. My other big take-away from this podcast is that almost everyone in Hollywood seems to have been a miserable depressive that drank themselves to death; I almost cried in my car listening to the story of Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.

I do occasionally branch out from pop culture and Hollywood, and Rex Factor is one of my favorite history podcasts. Two British guys (Graham and Ali) reviewed the history of every king and queen of England, ranked them on qualities such as scandal and “battle-iness,” and then held a bracket-style showdown to determine the ultimate monarch. They do a thorough job of reviewing the history, while also getting to the interesting trivia and being funny along the way (Ali is always so hilariously concerned when first cousins get married). I was a little worried that they would stop podcasting after they finished all the English rulers, but they’ve recently started up again with the kings and queens of Scotland. A word of warning–the early Saxon kings are a bit of a drag since they all have similar names and there’s not a lot of existing information, but things get more interesting as history moves along (there was definitely way more sex with nuns than I was expecting).

And finally, on a different note, I have talked here more than once about how I tend to recommend things that everyone already knows about. The Goldfinch?  The Martian? You didn’t really need me to tell you about those. But now I’m about to tip over into parody here: have you guys heard about Hamilton? I mean, seriously folks, it’s really good. I was lucky enough to see it on Broadway at the end of March (I bought my tickets back in September and then tried not to think about them too much since I was convinced a meteor would crash into the theater before I got to go) and it was AMAZING. But I can also wholeheartedly recommend the cast album. Because the whole show is sung–there’s really no spoken bits of the story–listening to the cast album really does let you hear the whole show and it’s just genius. It’s also awesome music to listen to in the gym. I think this Hamilton thing is really going to take off! (Hamilton also won a Pulitzer prize this week, and Lin-Manuel Miranda posted a hilarious picture on Twitter of the celebratory Pulitzer pies.)

 

The Girl From Everywhere

girl

Okay, this one is going to be complicated to describe but hang in there, it’s worth it. The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig is this crazy mix of time travel and fantasy and a coming of age YA story that constantly spins off into unexpected directions.

Nix is a teenage girl who lives on a time-traveling pirate ship. (I know!) She was born in 19th-century Hawaii, but her father has the power to sail a ship into any original map he has–even maps of fictional places. Nix’s mother died when she was a baby so Nix has grown up on the ship with a crew of sailors collected across times and places. She has developed a knack for raising the money they need for new maps through elaborate time travel import/export schemes, and is happy on the ship that is the only home she’s ever known. But her father is obsessed with finding a map that will get him back to Hawaii before Nix’s mother died, and Nix doesn’t know whether she will even still exist if they make it there. Despite not knowing how the rules of time travel might affect her, Nix still agrees to help her father try to track down one last map of Hawaii, but to get it they’ll need to pull off an elaborate heist and not get caught by the police, local crooks, or the winds of time itself.

How does time travel work? What are we willing to sacrifice for love? What is the difference between history and myth? What do we have to give up to make our own lives apart from our family? What would Ocean’s Eleven look like in 19th-century Hawaii? There are all kinds of things happening here, but the story still feels very grounded. And even through most of the book takes place in colonial Hawaii, Nix’s father was originally from the modern-day U.S. so both Nix and the story have a very modern sensibility.

Also, how pretty is that cover?

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Fantastical historical caper

You might also like: Time and Again is a classic time travel story, and I’ve already talked about how much I love When You Reach MeKindred by Octavia Butler is a dark take on the subject, and I’ll always recommend Connie Willis for time travel stories. But a lot of this book dealt with Hawaiian history and Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell is a comprehensive but snarky look at that sad story.

How to Build a Girl

moranWay back in late 2012, in a wrap-up of my favorite books of the year, I mentioned how much a I liked a book of essays by Caitlin Moran. She remains fabulous to follow on Twitter and I read her essays any time I get the chance (her weekly column is behind a paywall, and I can’t quite justify subscribing to a British newspaper just for one column, but things do show up from time to time). But for some reason I had been avoiding her debut novel. I’m not sure why exactly, maybe because I knew it was a coming-of-age story and I was worried that it would be horribly embarrassing and awkward to read about a teenage girl struggling through puberty? But I finally got around to reading it and I loooved it.

How To Build a Girl is fiction, but is obviously largely autobiographical. Moran, like the main character Johanna, was part of a large family growing up poor in 1990s Britain. And she also stumbled into a career as a music writer as a teenager, which is the story the book largely tells. Johanna is a poor, geeky, too-smart-for-her-own-good unpopular kid who decides to reinvent herself and ends up on the edges of the British music scene working as a magazine writer. As you can imagine, sometimes this goes swimmingly and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s fascinating to watch Johanna work out how to present herself, how to talk to people, how to construct a persona for herself–essentially how to be an adult. Which, you know, being an adult is hard and I think most of us are still trying to figure out how to do it. I haven’t seen many books that talk about this process as explicitly as this one does. But it manages to not be at all preachy or new-agey, but entirely practical.

I’m not sure how many of the details come directly from Moran’s life, but all of it feels very true–the family interactions, the fashion and makeup conversations, the music reviews. She and I are roughly the same age and I recognized a lot of the musicians and cultural references of the era, which was fun for me but was definitely an extra and not required to enjoy the book. And I should note that while this may sound like a YA novel, it’s not appropriate in any way. Moran does not shy away from talking about sex and drugs and bodies and crime and all the things that a teenager might encounter, and it’s pretty gritty from the very first page. And yet it didn’t feel exploitative or like Moran is grabbing for attention–it just felt real.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Snarky but touching

You might also like: Anything by Caitlin Moran is awesome. And if you haven’t read Tina Fey or Amy Poehler’s books, their stories of teenage adventure match up with Johanna’s very well. Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham (AKA Lorelai Gilmore) is also a clearly-largely-autobiographical-novel about a young woman becoming who she wants to be, and is lovely.

Also, let me take this opportunity to shout out a couple of things that I read on my fellow blog author’s recommendations and thoroughly enjoyed. First, back in July Rebecca raved about Uprooted by Naomi Novik and she was totally right. It was a completely fabulous modern fairy tale. And Anna recently talked about The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, which I liked as well. Ness has another recent release called A Monster Calls, which was also great. Different from The Rest of Us–while that one reminded me of an episode of Buffy the Vampire SlayerA Monster Calls was more like Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Game–but also great.

The Man in the High Castle Book vs. Movie Showdown

It often feels like people set up book readers and movie watchers as adversaries, especially when it comes to adaptations of written works to movies (or TV). “Are you mad that they’re turning this into a movie?”  “How bad will the movie be?” “If you didn’t read the book, you’re not really a fan! You can possibly appreciate the story!” And as a self-proclaimed reader who loves books, people seem to think that my loyalty will lie with books and I will be offended by any adaptation. But I actually love watching movies or TV versions of books and short stories! I find it fascinating to see how something from one medium is changed to another. What characters have to be cut or combined to make something work on screen? How does a plot need to be condensed or modified to work visually? Rather than take the changes personally, I find the adaptation process to be like watching someone work out a logic problem and I like seeing the solutions people come up with. For example, when I heard they were making a movie of the Cheryl Strayed book Wild, I just couldn’t imagine how they were going to turn that very introspective story into a movie. But the movie did a fabulous job of weaving in flashbacks while using silence to communicate Strayed’s loneliness and solitude on her hike. After I saw the movie Brokeback Mountain I went and read the source material–in that case, the movie was based on a short story, so the screenwriter had to create new material to fill out the story. If I had read the story first, I would not have believed it could be successfully expanded to a two-hour movie, but that movie is beautiful and, I think, very true to the original story. Adaptations don’t always work, of course–Little Women  is one of my very favorite books of all time, and pretty much every movie version has serious problems with casting (Winona Ryder as Jo, really?) and issues with the (admittedly) serial plot. But I also once saw a stage production of Little Women that was a failure in almost every way, EXCEPT they totally fixed Professor Bhaer by making him the same age as Jo and writing him as an absent-minded young man. He instantly went from creepy to cute. My point here is, I like comparing different media versions of the same material and seeing what works and what doesn’t, but I don’t always feel like I have to rule that one is better than another.

Having said all that, let’s talk about The Man in the High Castle. In late 2015 Amazon released a ten-episode season of an original drama based on the Philip K. Dick novel. I had never read the book, so I went into the show knowing only that it was an alternate history about a world where the Axis won WWII, and the U.S. was now divided into a West Coast occupied by the Japanese, an East Coast occupied by the Nazis, and an independent, lawless Rocky Mountain region. It’s now the early 1960s and the story follows, among other characters, members of a resistance group that are working to smuggle newsreels that seem to show the Axis losing the war to a mystery “man in the high castle” who provides them anti-Axis intel in return. The show definitely has some issues. The most primary characters–young people caught up in both the resistance and a love triangle–are the dullest on the show. Things move slowly at times, and it is dark. Really dark. Like, there were several times when I thought, “Well, surely they won’t go that far.” But, they’re Nazis! Of course they will go that far! But I really enjoyed the show overall. The world building is excellent–the scenes in San Francisco show all sorts of subtle ways that Japanese culture has been woven into the American city–and Rufus Sewell is chilling as a New York-based Nazi leader. And the newsreels that seem to show the U.S. winning the war raise all sorts of interesting questions that introduce a sci-fi element to the story (Are these fake newsreels? Are they showing our world? Is some sort of time travel happening?). By episode 10, the plot was moving along at a good pace and it ended on a cliffhanger than makes me very eager to check out (the yet-to-be-announced) Season 2.

As I was watching I heard, either online or on podcasts, that the plot of the show branched off from the book very quickly, and that in the book the newsreels were actually books themselves. This kind of change–changing a book to a film so it plays better in a visual medium–is exactly the sort of thing that fascinates me, so I decided to read The Man in the High Castle and see how the book compares. WELL. Look, I know that Philip K. Dick is a highly-regarded giant of science fiction, and I’m sure there are people out there railing about how the TV show completely ruined the book. But as far as I am concerned? DO NOT READ THIS BOOK.

First of all, the plots of the two versions are wildly different, and the characters just barely even line up. The Rufus Sewell character (probably the most compelling on the show) isn’t in the book at all, and most of the other characters bear little resemblance to their TV versions. The plot does involve a mysterious book and a resistance movement, but that’s about it–it feels as if the TV writers took the basic premise of an occupied U.S. and the character names, and then went off and did their own thing. And for the most part, that new thing is more complex, with more moving parts and more people, than the book. The TV show did drop a few things that could have been interesting–in the book the Nazis are in the process of colonizing Mars–but that were presumably too complicated for TV. But overall I found the multiple plot threads of the TV show more twisty and fun. However, none of that is why I am telling you not to read this book. My issue is that the book was horribly, terribly, sexist and racist. Every female character is both stupid and mean, and Dick makes a disturbing number of “dumb, like all women” comments. And there are plenty of cases where the book will use a racial slur, and it’s obviously because that is what a particular Nazi character would say or how a white man living under Japanese occupation would feel. But there were also lots of times where it seemed pretty clear that Dick was using a slur because he himself did not realize it was a slur. It all made me feel icky and I almost gave up on the book entirely because it was so gross.

So, although I generally don’t feel the need to decide whether the book or the movie (or TV show) wins, or to tell people that one version is definitive, in this case I am clear: the TV show is better. The move down the scale of racism and sexism would be all that I needed to make that call, but I actually also thought that the TV show’s expansion of the plot and characters and the visual world building were significantly more interesting than in the book. So, as long as you have a high tolerance for darkness, I would say watch the show, and don’t feel a single bit of guilt about ignoring the book altogether.

 

 

Bone Gap

I first heard about Bone Gap, written by Laura Ruby, on the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast as part of their round-up of National Book Award winners and I planned to write a post recommending from just about the minute I started it. So the fact that it just this week won the 2016 Printz Award for excellence in literature for young adults this week  makes this a very timely review (a rarity for me!).

Bone Gap tells the story of Finn, a teenage boy who lives with his older brother in a tiny, Midwestern farm town. Finn has a reputation as being a bit slow or spacey, and things have only gotten worse since the disappearance of Roza, a young woman who was living with them. Finn was the only witness to her kidnapping, but he hasn’t been able to describe the kidnapper and everyone in town (including his brother) has been looking at him askance ever since. Aaaand that’s about all I want to say.

I went in to this book knowing that it included elements of magic realism, and I’m going to tell you that much because I think our readers here more likely to pick this up if it’s got a bit of magic to it (Biblio-therapy readers are a fanciful lot). However, I also read the book summary on the inside of the cover and it gave me some details that I wish I hadn’t known. This story and its magic and its central mystery unfold so slowly and naturally that I think part of the joy of reading this is letting the story take you along at it’s own pace.

So, don’t read any online reviews, just trust me on this. Bone Gap is sweet and mysterious and sometimes dark and scary and sometimes small-town claustrophobic, and just all around interesting. It’s a book that cast a spell on me.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Magical small-town mystery

You might also like: I almost hate to make recommendations here, since anything I suggest is going to telegraph the ultimate tone of Bone Gap. But I can’t stop myself from telling people what to read, so, Alice Hoffman and Francesca Lia Block are two authors that do magic realism well. I like them both, although Hoffman’s books tend to tip towards middle-aged women and Block’s really speak to angsty 14-year-olds. Another option is Please Ignore Vera Dietz, by A.S. King, a book with an element of magic that splits the difference and would appeal to a wide range of folks.

The Best Books of 2015 (according to the world’s coolest 12-year-old)

Happy 2016, everyone! In late December/early January I typically write a post highlighting the books I’ve enjoyed most over the past year. But I’ve already posted on most of the things I’d want to talk about (Station Eleven, The Martian, Carry On), so let’s do something a bit different. Anna and I were lucky enough to spend New Year’s Eve with some dear friends and their children. I’m sure this won’t come as any surprise, but our friends are also bookish sorts, so we’re always talking about what we’re reading and trading around/gifting each other favorite books. One of the fun parts about watching our friends’ kids get older is seeing them become bookish and getting to introduce them to books we loved as children. But the oldest of the kids is twelve now and it’s become clear that she doesn’t need us to recommend books to her–she can find great things on her own and we should probably start taking recommendations from her. She kindly agreed to contribute a guest blog for us, so here are her top three books of 2015 (all of which are now on my library list):

 

Ava

1) The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton. “I love how this book tells the story of many generations of Lavenders. I also love the fact that Ava is actually born with wings!”

 

 

stead2) Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead. “This book tells about a girl who has been through a terrible accident and all of her friends. I feel like you can really connect with them, because they do things that real 2015 teenagers do.” [Note: we’ve talked about Rebecca Stead here on the blog before and my love for her now feels validated.]

 

theo3) Kid Lawyer (part of the Theodore Boone series) by John Grisham. “I love that this kid, Theo, is not afraid to stand up to adults. He is a junior lawyer who knows a lot and stands up for his beliefs. I love reading about his adventures and how he always helps everyone out.”

The Scorpio Races

We’ve talked before about how certain books fit certain times of the year. I wrote a whole post a few years back about good Christmas reads, and Anna has mentioned that A Night in the Lonesome October is an excellent creepy story for Halloween. This year, as the darkness and cold began to descend, I decided to branch out from my typical winter reads and try a couple of new things that I’d seen recommended on social media.

A few people mentioned The Dark is Rising as an excellent Christmas re-read, and it was. This is the second in a series of five middle-reader books by Susan Cooper about children encountering mystical forces in England. The first one in the series is actually my favorite, but The Dark is Rising stands alone so you don’t need to read the others. It’s great for this time of the year because it takes place during Christmas and Advent and feels very winter-y. And although these books are not that old–they originally came out in the 1960s–they feel timeless, and read like classic children’s fantasy without any sort of modern angst or issues.

What I really want to talk about now, though, is The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, a book I’ve been avoiding for years but which has now officially joined my To Be Reread Every Year list. Stiefvater has a series of YA books that starts with The Raven Boys that I’ve reviewed here before and enjoyed just fine but didn’t looove. I’d seen discussions online about how The Scorpio Races was her best work–it was a Printz (like the YA Newberrys) honor book in 2012–but the descriptions of the book always sounded so grim, often quoting the very first line of the book: “It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.”  Does that sounds cheery? No, it does not. But I finally decided to give it a shot and it’s not a cheery book, but it is suspenseful and exciting and touching and I loooved it.

When I describe the plot this is going to sound like a crazy fantasy novel: every November, on a small island off the coast of (I think?) Ireland, magical, dangerous, predatory horses that live under the water come up on land. It’s island tradition to try to catch one of these horses and keep it under control long enough to win an annual race, which has now become a tourist attraction that is one of the few sources of income on the tiny island. I know, weird. However, once you’ve accepted this premise, the rest of the book is remarkably realistic. There are young people trying to figure out how to make a life and a living on a remote island, sibling dynamics, challenges of established gender roles, some solid villains, and a love story (which I am always a sucker for). The characters feel modern and relatable, but the remote island setting and lack of discussion of cell phones or other technology make the story feel out of time, like it could be taking place anytime from 1900 to today. And it’s always raining or foggy, and everyone’s always cold and wrapping up in sweaters, so it really is the perfect thing to read while under a blanket, drinking hot tea in the early winter darkness.

It took me a little time to get into this book, because the first few chapters felt so ominous. For the first 100 pages or so I had to talk myself into reading it each night because I was so so worried about what might happen next. After a little bit I got so swept up into the story that I couldn’t put the book down, but I definitely felt anxious at first. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so let me just say that if you start the book and you’re thinking, like I was, “Everyone and everything I love in this book is going to come to a terrible end,” don’t worry. Things get intense, but you’ll come out of it with hope, not despair.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Nerve-wracking autumnal adventure.
You might also like: The New Policeman, by Kate Thompson, another YA book set in Ireland with a supernatural twist, and So You Want to Be a Wizard, a childhood favorite of mine that always leaves me with the same emotionally wrung out feeling as The Scorpio Races.