10 Books for Your Labor Day Weekend

Even those of us who read for labor still love the idea of curling up with a couple good books over the weekend-when-we’re-not-supposed-to-be-laboring. I’ve got my pile all set, but in case you’re looking for a few suggestions to chill out with over the holiday, here’s a motley crew of titles I’m excited to recommend. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments below!

YA Fiction

Every Day by David Levithan. In this stunning new title, A., the protagonist, wakes up each day in a different body. But what’s an unmoored soul to do when a fabulous girl suddenly comes into the picture? Yes, romance drives this story, but deeper, more thought-provoking issues of gender and identity lie at its core. Highly, highly recommended.

YA Fantasy

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. A tenuous peace exists between the human characters in this gorgeous fantasy and the dragons with whom they once warred. But beneath the peace bubbles prejudice—and worse, fear. Main character Seraphina must use her talent for understanding both worlds to keep the two sides in balance. But will her dark secret be her undoing?

YA Realistic Fiction

Since You Left Me by Allen Zadoff. Sanskrit Aaron Zuckerman has more problems than most ordinary teenagers, beginning with his super-wacky mom and ending with…well, his super-wacky mom. After she fails to show up for yet another key meeting at Aaron’s swanky Jewish private school, Aaron offers up a lie that sets his whole world spinning. This book does a great job exploring, then cracking open, the myopia that often characterizes the teenage years. Even better is its deft treatment of faith and spirituality.

Docu-novel

No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Michaeux Nelson. In this mostly-nonfiction story, voices from Lewis Michaux’s colorful life tell the story of Harlem’s first bookseller. A beautiful, life-affirming account of a man who believed in his community enough to risk everything for it—and whose persistence left a powerful legacy.

Middle Grade Fiction

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead. You’ll read this one in a heartbeat, but slow down if you can. This slim little novel is a carefully-woven tapestry of mystery, quirks, and emotional insights. Get my full review here.

Middle Grade Fantasy

Darkbeast by Morgan Keyes. In Keara’s world, every child has a darkbeast—a creature that teaches its child how to be better, even as it takes away its child’s sins. Most children hate their darkbeasts, but not Keara. What will happen when Keara’s twelfth birthday forces the sacrifice of her darkbeast, Caw? The metaphor of the darkbeast could be better developed, but as a meditation on the power of childhood, and what adulthood forces us to leave behind, Darkbeast is an interesting—and enjoyably fanciful—read.

Poetry

Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It by Gail Carson Levine. Borrowing liberally from William Carlos Williams, Levine spins out a book’s-worth of fake apology poems which range from amusing to side-splitting. To add to the humor, classic fairy tale characters, as well as other noteworthy cultural icons make appearances. Well worth a peek—if not a cover to cover read.

Creepy Crawly

The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand. Do yourself a favor: Start this book by daylight, will you? In this uber-creepy story, Victoria’s life is perfect, except for her one and only friend, Lawrence. Lawrence, dear readers, is an unfortunate smudge. A stain. A real nuisance, actually—especially when he goes missing. Fans of Neil Gaiman and Roald Dahl will especially enjoy this disturbingly delightful debut.

Oldie but Goodie

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I sort of feel silly including this one, since almost every avid reader I know remembers it as a childhood favorite. But one of the joys of summer is not just new books, but the old ones it allows me to re-read. If you haven’t spent time with Sara Crewe recently, consider this your impetus to do so. LOVE.

For Adults

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. If you enjoy the wit and charm of Jane Austen but don’t want to be bothered by the, um, complications of late 18th-century language, you’ll love this witty, charming modern novel set in a quaint English village. A love story, a social commentary, a meditation on unlikely friendships—this book is, by turns, heartbreaking and heartwarming, and completely wonderful.



There are books for kids, and then there are books for “kids”

Remarkable cover

I’ve never had a problem with the fact that I’m an avid reader of books for kids and teens. I read plenty of “adult” fiction in college—and have read plenty of classics since then. And though the English major in me still has fun with the grown-up stuff in an obsessive, academic way, I’ll forever be a children’s book junkie at heart.

Recently, though, a spate of books has started me wondering if there are books for “kids” (of all ages) and books just for kids. What I mean is, I’ve encountered a number of titles—especially for the tween set—that I know I would have loved as a child, but which I’m having a hard time loving as an adult. One example was Polly Horvath’s newest, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire. Try as I might to enjoy this book, all the quirk and whimsy and utter nonsense quickly got the best of me. And yet, as I thought back to my nine-year-old self, I could imagine my delight then…and I wondered why I couldn’t feel that same delight now.

So it went with Lizzie K. Foley’s Remarkable as well. Between the pirates, the elusive lake monster, the diabolical Grimlet twins, the over-the-top, uber-remarkable characters, the absurd plot twists, and on and ON, Remarkable was just a little too remarkably ridiculous. Would the Jenny of two decades ago have felt the same way? I doubt it.

All of this isn’t to say that I’m outgrowing children’s fiction. I can think of plenty of other books with their fair share of flights of imaginative fancy—books by authors like Roald Dahl, Richard Peck, Louis Sachar, and even Joan Aiken—that I still read, and love, today.

So what’s the difference?

For me, it comes down to whether a book’s whimsy and quirkiness are just for the sake of whimsy and quirkiness, or whether they serve a larger purpose: as metaphor, to teach a lesson, to help tell the story or develop the main character. That’s not to say that Mr. and Mrs. Bunny and Remarkable are completely meaning-free. But as an older reader, or non-kid, I guess I’m looking for stories in which meaning and message drive the narrative, instead of the bells and whistles.

What makes the best books for kids—of all ages? They’re the stories that manage to drive home a point, but that do it in a way that still makes you believe you’re just reading for fun.

Which came first, the book or the Xbox?

A recent blog post from some YA lit groupies (aka librarians) highlighted current or projected trends in literature for teens. Having consumed more than my fair share of said literature recently, their picks—dystopias, Jack the Ripper, dual-perspective books—didn’t come as much of surprise. Though I did appreciate their willingness to cast a more positive light on the teen lit scene. There’s something so much more palatable about a “trend” than the word that had begun coming to mind every time a new dystopia arrived on my doorstep: redundancy.

I also found their list to be fairly comprehensive. That is, until last night. That’s because last night I started reading A Confusion of Princes, a new book from YA author Garth Nix. And that’s when I realized the whopping trend that no one is talking about:

YA books as video games. Or, to put it another way, video games turned YA lit.

(Is video games still the catch-all term for online/computer/Xbox/etc. games? Experts in this field, please enlighten me!)

No matter what you call them, these computer/gaming-console-based multiplayer time-sucks are a standard aspect of franchises. Star Wars, Harry Potter—if it’s gone big onscreen or in a book, you can bet it’s also on Xbox or online.

But books written as video games? That’s a new one.

My first inkling that gaming might be affecting—even influencing—the writing of YA lit came when I read Veronica Roth’s wildly popular Divergent. Her writing wasn’t exactly cinematic, but it was vivid. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it felt like…well, let’s just say I knew it when I hit the aptitude tests in Chapter Two: I was reading an online game.

One book, however, is not a trend. But A Confusion of Princes was even more explicit about its gaming roots. Here’s the dedication:

"…to PHIL WALLACH, game designer and software engineer, and LES PETERSEN, illustrator and graphic designer, who with me worked on the online game Imperial Galaxy, which was based on this book well before I finished writing it.”

A game based on a book that’s not finished? Sounds more like a book based on a game. Or maybe I’m just getting caught up in the old chicken and the egg debate.

The main point is: Gaming as literature is definitely becoming a trend. And while this may encourage a few reluctant readers to pick up novels that they otherwise wouldn’t, I’m not sure that books themselves are benefiting.

What do you think?

If there really were an entrance to Wonderland, we’re convinced that this is what it would look like.

If there really were an entrance to Wonderland, we’re convinced that this is what it would look like.

What’s in a name?

I’ve never been a huge fan of Romeo and Juliet, but I will say this: Shakespeare had it right when he had his leading lady ask: “What’s in a name?”

What’s in a name, indeed. This was the question I found myself asking recently after I read yet another middle grade novel in which the main character’s name was, well, pretentious. OK, maybe pretentious is taking it too far. But self-conscious? Yes. Overly-precious? Absolutely.

I know the power of a well-named main character. I can’t hear “Claudia” without thinking about E.L. Konigsburg’s classic. Or let’s go quirky. Stanley Yelnats of Holes may seem a bit contrived, but the palindrome serves a narrative purpose. And the character—and his name—is certainly one I’ll never forget.

All of which is to say that I get the appeal of a name that stands out, tells a story. Harry, Katniss, Bella—there are few readers today who wouldn’t hear these names and immediately associate them with franchises that have made their authors millions.

I also get the ordinary names—typically, they’re meant to convey something about the character’s frame of mind. Like the fact that he or she feels dull or ignored or somehow unexceptional. What I don’t get are the names that bash you over the head with cuteness. When I come across a character who is named Georges after the famous Post-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat, I have to ask myself: Why?

It’s not just the fact that I feel like names such as this one practically jump up and down and say “Look at me!” It’s that I have a hard time when I feel like an author is picking “artistic license” over reader friendliness. (I had a similar issue in The Scorpio Races with the constant use of “capall uisce”—which it took me 50 solid pages before I could read  and pronounce it correctly. Care to hazard a guess? It’s CAPple ISHka. Yeah.)

Now, I’m not advocating for books that don’t challenge readers. As a child, my world expanded as I learned how to pronounce the unfamiliar names of the people and places I encountered in the books that I read. (Or, I made up my own pronunciations. It wasn’t until I actually met a real-life kid named Sean that I discovered it wasn’t pronounced “seen.”)

Actually, what I’m advocating for is for more authors to remember Shakespeare’s evergreen question. A name isn’t about impressing your colleagues, or getting people to think you’re smart, or wowing the world with just how brilliant and creative you are. A main character’s name (in particular) is about the story you’re telling. It’s about telegraphing something to your audience.

And this audience member in particular looks forward, not necessarily to names that are easy to pronounce, but to those that are readily understood—and for that reason, remembered.

Guilty pleasures

Chances are, even occasional viewers of our weekly Pick on 60secondrecap.com know that I have some strong feelings about dystopias. Namely, that a lot of so-called dystopian fiction for teens utterly fails in its justification of why it is dystopic to begin with. (See my rants here and here, for example.) While other readers devour Suzanne Collins and Ally Condie the way I do homemade baked goods, I roll my eyes over the faux-seriousness of these stories and move on, as quickly as possible, to more enjoyable reads.

Except in the case of Divergent.

To be clear, Divergent had all the typical failings of the dystopian literature I’ve come to loathe. The post-apocalyptic society’s “factions” (the five groups into which all members of society must divide themselves) made no sense. Nor did the rules and customs of those factions—such as the fact that the members of “Candor” wear black and white because, you know, “their faction values honesty and sees the truth as black and white, so that is what they wear.” PLEASE.

So then why, you might be wondering, did I get sucked into this story, pausing only to realize that four hours had passed, I had seven missed calls, eleven new text messages, and that it was 8pm and I still hadn’t eaten dinner yet.

Why indeed. Divergent is not great literature. It has no profound lessons to teach, though it tries hard to make you believe that it does. Wait: People aren’t just who they appear to be on the surface? Like, a goth might not just be some angsty scary person? And a cheerleader might have something going on beneath the surface? Might we each be way more than anyone else’s slender set of superficial assumptions about us??

OMG!!!!!!!

Yeah, so no revelations here, and yet, as a wish fulfillment story, Divergent offers a frighteningly readable, even compelling, narrative about a female warrior who has the kind of strength (and, let’s face it, body) that every girl probably wishes she had.

I’ll even give Divergent this: Tris, the main character, did have an emotional journey of sorts. Yes, she was AWESOME in the beginning and yes, she was still AWESOME in the end. But in the middle, she had some lessons to learn about how to navigate human relationships (and her own awesomeness) that I did feel rang true.

And she and a hot guy fell in love (of course). So there’s that.

Don’t read this book if you’re looking for great writing or major life lessons. And especially don’t read it for the dystopia. But if you need a guilty pleasure read for the summer—the kind that’ll make you feel like a kid again, reading under the covers with a flashlight because you just. can’t. stop.—Divergent is a strangely appropriate choice. Especially for anyone who loves imagining themselves as a female ninja.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go read the sequel.

What do you read when you’re not reading?

It used to be that I equated reading with recreation. Picking up a book was something I did a lot, but I did it for fun, and I certainly didn’t do it during working hours. With the advent of 60second Recap, though, all that changed. Suddenly, there weren’t enough hours in the day for reading. And I’m not just talking about the classics. Kind publishers bestowed on me piles of tween and YA titles, which I was only too happy to read, and then feature as Picks of the Week. Hundreds of thousands of pages later, I can say that I’ve been fortunate to make my way through a lot of really terrific literature, and the occasional dud.

But part of me has forgotten what it’s like to read for fun.

Oh, sure, I still enjoy the books that I read. But let’s face it: Sometimes all the reading I have to get through can feel like running a marathon over and over. So what’s a girl, who used to read to relax, to do?

That’s where my faintly oxymoronic question comes in: What do you read when you’re not reading? Are you a person who buys trashy magazines and devours them? (Come on, now: Fess up. We’re among friends.) Or maybe you’re an avid blog follower/consumer.

Or maybe you’re like me, and when you’re not reading for work, you’re still reading—because you’ve discovered the joys of reading a cookbook like a novel. I admit that this may be a strange habit, especially since I will happily consume recipe headnotes, ingredient lists, and pages of detailed directions—even if I have no plans to ever make the dish. There aren’t enough hours in the day for reading, and there certainly aren’t enough hours for making braised octopus (not that I would anyway) from the new cookbook, A Girl and Her Pig.

And yet, late at night, when I’m too tired to plow my way through one more Pick of the Week, I eagerly read about Chef April Bloomfield’s recipe techniques, her dinners with famous foodies, and her memories of growing up in the land of trifles and bubble & squeak (otherwise known as England). There are stories in cookbooks, yes there are. And imagination.

And pictures.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s the main reason why I read cookbooks when I’m not reading: To some degree, I get a break from all those words.

Perhaps I should start looking into picture books…

For the love of a good simile

simile

As an avid—and occasionally frantic—reader of tween and YA lit, I’ve consumed more than my fair share of really bad similes. The moment I see the comparative “like” or “as” appear in a sentence, I am filled with hope. 98% of the time, what comes after said “like/as” turns my hope into disappointment—followed by a giant cringe.

You know, I get it, though: We can’t all be T.S. Eliot. But there are a lot of authors out there who just don’t know when to stop with the similes. Step away from your computers, people: Your faux writerly comparisons are hurting me.

I think “faux writerly” sums up my main gripe nicely: We can’t all be T.S. Eliot, but many writers sure are trying. Writers who have no business trying are trying, and writers who will get better with trying are trying. Personally, I am trying to have more patience with bad similes because heaven knows that writing is hard enough without some snarky critic looking over your shoulder and second-guessing the poetic comparison you just spent several hours crafting.

Thankfully for snarky critics like me, there are also writers like Pete Hautman, who seem to pop off evocative, effective similes effortlessly, thereby giving my cringing muscles a break. Maybe some people wouldn’t call his similes “evocative,” since they’re not meant to be writerly and beautiful, but rather humorous. But the images they summon are so vivid, I’m going to go ahead and give Hautman props for artistry. His imagination has certainly captured mine.

You’ll have to read his latest book, What Boys Really Want, featuring dual protagonists Lita and Adam, to fully enjoy a master simile-maker at work. But here are just a couple samples to whet your appetite:

"Lita is practically the smartest person I know, but she can be highly irrational at times. … arguing with Lita is like trying to eat an ice-cream cone from the bottom up. Very messy."

"Arguing with Adam Merchant is as useless as climbing up a down escalator. Maybe you get to the top eventually, but it’s exhausting, and the escalator just keeps on going."

Tell me: Who are your favorite simile-makers?

The Best Books of 2011

Before we get all out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new, let’s pause for, say, 60 seconds, to talk about the best books of 2011. Oh, there were some treasures this year—books that I greedily added to my already-overflowing shelves. If you haven’t read them yet, here are the top ten 2011 titles that your year wouldn’t be complete without:

10. The Berlin Boxing Club. Every year in publishing introduces us to a new angle on the Holocaust. This book, which should be especially appealing to teenage boys, offers a parts-poignant, parts-harrowing look at the life of a teenage Jew-who-didn’t-look-like-a Jew growing up in Berlin in the 1940s. Think coming-of-age-story meets sports story meets riveting Holocaust tale.

9. Blink & Caution. Love fast-paced thrillers? Blink & Caution was this year’s best. When two damaged teens join forces, there’s sure to be drama—and maybe a little romance. Throw in a cover-up involving big bad big business, and you have all the makings of one YA title you won’t be able to put down.

8. Bluefish. Now for a horse—make that fish—of a completely different color, there’s Bluefish. I wouldn’t call this book heavily plotted; it’s more interested in the emotional journeys of its two main characters, Travis and Veleeta. What this book lacks in plot, however, it makes up for in gorgeous writing and a pretty unforgettable story about friendship.

7. Page by Paige. Skeptical about graphic novels? Page by Paige may well make you a believer. Oh, to draw like Laura Lee Gulledge! This book’s charming, whimsical, and insightful take on all issues teen angst-related makes it a title I’ll be returning to—and sharing with my friends.

6. Science Fair Season. No, you won’t find the best writing of the year in Science Fair Season, but you’ll probably find the most inspiring true stories. In this speedy nonfiction read, you’ll meet the next generation of scientists, big thinkers, and teens who care deeply about their world. From nuclear reactors to solar heaters built from discarded car radiators, these projects will amaze and move you.

5. Secrets at Sea. The year wouldn’t be complete without a nod to at least one animal story, right? In the tradition of Cinderella and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, 2011’s Secrets at Sea offers up mouse drama that’s imaginative, funny, and just plain fun. Better yet: Classic Richard Peck storytelling means you can count on a story that’s both well-plotted and delightfully written.

4. The Big Crunch. To call The Big Crunch a romance doesn’t really do this tender-but-comical book justice, but that’s really what it is: the best teen romance, in fact, of 2011. Anyone who’s experienced the flush, the awkwardness, the joys and pains of first love, will enjoy watching June and Wes’s relationship develop in this lovely book from Pete Hautman.

3. This Dark Endeavor. Even if you don’t love Frankenstein, chances are you’ll love this story about young Viktor and his desperate quest to save his dying twin brother. With its dark forests, magical creatures, and nods to the original tale, Kenneth Oppel’s latest will satisfy Harry Potter fans and classics nerds alike.

2. The Watch that Ends the Night. In 2011, Allan Wolf made me love a novel in verse. He also humanized the sinking of the Titanic—a story which always seemed merely like history, until I read his brilliant take on 24 of the thousands of souls that perished (or nearly perished) in one of the most infamous catastrophes in maritime history. This book is poetry, and storytelling, at its best.

1. What Comes After. I said it at the time of filming; I’ll say it again now. What Comes After was (and is) my favorite book of 2011. Protagonist Iris Wight’s story isn’t always an easy one. But it’s also filled with beauty, grace, and moments of the most powerful storytelling I encountered this year. I can’t wait to share this book with friends and viewers in 2012…and beyond.

Happy New Year!

Comfort books

This time of year, comfort is key. Warm and comfy winter clothes. Comfort foods. Hey, what about comfort books? There’s something about the short days and long nights, the fireplaces and down comforters that gets me thinking about childhood classics.

Now, as I’ve already admitted in previous posts, some books may be imbued with special memories, but no longer make the cut. I’ve outgrown them, seen their weaknesses and flaws. I can appreciate what they brought me in childhood, but now they just annoy me. Such is the challenge when I go in search of a comfort book: too often, anticipation quickly turns to disappointment.

Like my Nancy Drew mysteries. As a nine-year-old, I devoured those books. I read every one the moment it came out, and I haunted the bookstore in our South Miami neighborhood for news of the next installment. I was definitely more of a saver than a spender as a kid, but still: Just in case, I had a special cache where I always had enough money squirreled away for a surprise release, or an unexpected Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys Super Special.

As for those in-between weeks and months when I was awaiting Nancy’s next delicious adventure? That was when I re-read the hundred or so books I’d already collected. I followed Nancy through a dozen Christmases, too many close calls and near-death experiences to count, and a single relationship with Ned Nickerson that seemed neither to grow nor to falter.

Of course, not all Nancy mysteries were created equal. Though I enjoyed her exploits at a Renaissance fair and skulking around Eastern Europe, my favorite mysteries found her prowling through a haunted Southern estate and holed up at a cursed cooking school.

Which is why, when I returned to my parents’ house over the holidays a few years ago, I immediately sought out number 117: Mystery on the Menu.

(Side note: Doesn’t the chef on the cover oddly resemble John Lithgow?)

I was excited as I hunkered down under the covers with my dog-eared relic. Mystery + cooking: What could be better, right? I felt a flicker of my nine-year-old self as I held my breath and opened to the first page.

Alas, although Nancy has managed not to change in the 15+ years since I last read her, I’ve apparently changed a lot. Too quickly I was disgusted with the one-dimensional characters and obvious plotting. As for that “mystery” I’d remembered as a total nail-biter? Let’s just say that these books weren’t exactly written for adults.

So Nancy Drew failed me, but really, I should have known better. Books that endure are generally not ghost-written potboiler mysteries. The kind of books that are genuine comfort books are books that endure not just over the decade and a half between my childhood and my adulthood, but over the decades, period. They communicate some kind of universal truth. And their characters live on, long after you read the final page.

I thought about that this year as the days began to darken early and the cold made going outside less appealing. And though a number of books on my shelf do fit that criteria, my eyes lit on one that I’ve read many times since childhood, and which has never let me down.

That’s pretty much what the cover of my copy of Farmer Boy looks like—though probably a bit more tattered. And to this day, I find the story of nine-year-old Almanzo, who lived on his family’s farm in upstate New York in the mid-1800s, to be one of the most enjoyable, cozy, and yes, comforting, of all the books on my shelf. There’s the warmth of Almanzo’s close-knit family, yes. There are the mouth-watering descriptions of food, and the picturesque setting of the farm in all stages of growth, and harvest, bounty.

But mostly why I love this book, and mostly why it will forever comfort me, is its testament to the power of hard work and self-reliance. Almanzo and his family lived a difficult but beautiful life with only their work ethic and persistence to get them through. They had no safety net and no excuses. They had each other and their faith, yes. But mostly their life revolved around a kind of perseverance-in-all-circumstances that many of us can’t begin imagine.

For anyone forging his or her own path in this world, there’s nothing more reassuring—make that, comforting—than seeing these real-life characters succeed. Sorry, Nancy, but it beats your mystery-solving by a mile.