Review: An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of KatherinesAn Abundance of Katherines by John Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot of charm in An Abundance of Katherines, which is kind of a funny thing to say about a book that includes a hunt for feral pigs and the grave of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but I stand by it. The story of Colin Singleton, former child prodigy and dumped by 19 girls named Katherine, is delightfully particular, including his best friend Hassan and their road trip to Gutshot, Tennessee. But what John Green does best is writing these eloquent, hyperverbal teenagers with quirks for day who are also wrestling with the classic adolescent questions: who am I becoming, do I like that person, and if not, what can I do about it? Do you have to leave your home behind to have adventures? Are we trapped in our own ruts or can we break out? These characters are no exception, and I enjoyed watching them fumble through their own little self-discovery challenges.

If you like John Green’s other work, I’d recommend this one, though I still think The Fault in Our Stars is the best place to start.

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Review: Tiny Beautiful Things

Confession: I’m fascinated by advice columns, and pounce on new ones by my favorite columnists as soon as they appear. What people are willing to reveal in the context of seeking help, the desperate situations they find themselves in, the complicated and nuanced ways in which lives can go awry: I can’t get enough, and each columnist satisfies a different type of curiosity for me. I’ve learned about sexuality from Savage Love and dysfunctional relationships from Dear Prudence, and even way more than I ever thought I’d know about cloth diapering from Amy’s Advice Smackdown. The best columnists also provide a master class in developing distinctive voices as writers, which helps provide a natural transition into personal writing about marriage and parenting (I’d highly recommend Savage’s The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family and The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant to anyone).

Dear Sugar at The Rumpus is a wonderful example of how an advice columnist can give insightful responses while also becoming a three-dimensional voice in her own right. Sugar shares as much with her readers as the writers share with her, while still maintaining the kind yet forthright voice and advice they seek. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar is a collection of Sugar columns and responses, many familiar and others new, but it really reads like a memoir, one aimed directly at you, one that resonates deep in your heart and gives you the gift of indelible phrasing and bottomless compassion.

Turns out Sugar’s alter ego is writer Cheryl Strayed, write of the immensely popular memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Vintage), which I read and loved a few years ago. If you read and loved Wild, you should get yourself some Tiny Beautiful Things.

Top Ten Tuesday: Gateway Books and Authors

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday over at The Broke and the Bookish asks about your gateway books and authors, those “that really started us on our way to becoming book lovers.” For me, the answer was clear immediately, though it may seem slightly schizophrenic.

The Complete Anne of Green Gables Boxed Set (Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne’s House of Dreams, … Rainbow Valley, Rilla of Ingleside): No books have had more influence on me in my life than these, as a reader, but equally as a woman and a mother. Reading and rereading these books passed on so many life lessons and values that I still cherish today, and watching Anne grow up provided me with so much wisdom and beauty along the way. Reading them as an adult, I am struck by how complete the world of Prince Edward’s Island seems to me, and how vivid and authentic the characters are, and just how much I still would love to slip between the pages and find myself in Avonlea. Introducing these books to my daughters was a lovely experience; they haven’t gone on to read all of L.M. Mongomery’s work they have, but they both fall asleep each night listening to the book on CD, and have dropped in references over the years that tell me how deeply Anne of Green Gables has entered their hearts and minds.

After that series, the other most formative books for me as a young reader were definitely the work of Stephen King. Specifically, I think Misery, Different Seasons (Signet), The Stand, It, and Christine (Signet) are the ones I read at a younger age that have stuck with me the longest, though by this point, I believe I’ve read all of his work. In many ways, King’s work is wildly different than the pastoral peace of Green Gables, and I think that’s part of why they were so formative. Montgomery’s work evoked a time that has passed, while King is writing about our own time, our own modern world, and the horrors that lie within (and without). Stephen King’s work was the first “adult” stuff I read that was shocking and scary and bloody but also literary–I’ve watched with satisfaction as King’s work has grown in repute and reputation, because I’ve always believed in his powers of storytelling and literary craft. Rereading The Shining in preparation for Doctor Sleep was a great illustration of this for me; everyone who’s read it or seen the movie remembers “redrum” and the other ghostly frights, but what struck me upon rereading was the other horrifying thread of the book, the terror Wendy and Jack Torrance feel as they watch their marriage suffer under the toll of Jack’s addiction and rage before they even reach the Overlook Hotel.

How about you? What books or authors shaped you as a reader?

Review: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line (Veronica Mars, #1)The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are like me, and own the Complete Series, and waited with bated breath for The Veronica Mars Movie but still haven’t slaked your V-Mars thirst, please please read The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line. It’s fantastic. And if you haven’t seen the series (for some crazy reason), and you like witty banter, fast-paced mysteries, Southern California noir, and wisecracking heroines who can fire a gun but still be waylaid by their own hearts, READ THIS BOOK. Then watch the series and the movie and be in love with all of it.

Tan Line picks up right where the movie left off: Keith is recuperating from his wounds, Logan is out to sea (and stays there), and Veronica is trying to keep Mars Investigations afloat on her own when a juicy case walks in the door, courtesy of the Victoria’s Secret model-turned-Neptune-Grand-owner, Petra Landros, who hires Veronica to investigate the disappearances of two spring-breakers. Landros, by the way, is a great new character in a book with our old favorites (Weevil! Wallace! Mac!) and even some returning faces (Norris Clayton, the trench-coat with a crush on Veronica and Japanese weapons, now working for the Neptune PD). Tracking down the two missing girls gets Veronica involved with a Mexican drug cartel, and that’s just the beginning. Since this is Neptune, no one is who they seem to be, and Veronica gets thrown quite a few curve balls.

I’m one of those fans who loves the Logan-Veronica pairing, but having that mostly off the table (seriously, Logan only pops in a few times via Skype) lets us focus on what makes Veronica so special, and we travel deeper into her psyche than ever before. Courtesy of a major plot twist, Veronica has to decide whether to assess her own prickly approach to boundaries, especially those in her past, and she grapples with this in a much more mature way than she was able to in high school. The book opens up more territory for Veronica to explore beyond her love life, and lays some groundwork for what future chapters in the saga might look like.

Apparently there’s some controversy over the fact that the book is told in third-person, not first-person, but I think this is silly, honestly. Whether it’s “I” or “Veronica” speaking, we’re in the same perspective, and it maps perfectly with the perspective fans of the series will expect as well as establish Veronica as a character many readers will love. I think we get to know Veronica even better here, because we’re not limited to what she’s willing to say but instead get to hear the interior emotions we often only saw on Kristen Bell’s face.

I’m really looking forward to more mysteries, whether or not there’s ever another movie, and I think Rob Thomas is doing an excellent job continuing to unfold the Mars universe and let Veronica evolve as a protagonist. The world of Neptune still has much to show us about the dark side of the American dream, and Veronica has much to learn about herself and her place in it.

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Review: The Goldfinch

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When a book gets reviewed by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, you know it’s a “big” book. When it gets reviewed again by Stephen King, and when it’s by Donna Tartt, and when the whole literary world seems to fall in love and immediately begin casting the film adaptation, you must be talking about The Goldfinch

Truth be told, I was a little nervous when I started reading this book; one of my dear friends had just been raving about it, but after my ambivalence towards Tartt’s first two novels, I was wary. Her powers as a stylist are dazzling, but the plotting often fell apart for me and I didn’t know if I was prepared to invest 800 pages’ worth of time in a book that might let me down in the home stretch again.

But The Goldfinch is in many ways a more mature book; the characters are more authentic and moving than those of The Secret History and the plot much better formulated and constructed than in The Little Friend. It’s a book I know I’ll return to again and again, whether to experience the rich settings that swing from Manhattan to Las Vegas to Amsterdam and back, the vivid and memorable characters like Boris, the narrator’s childhood best friend and Russian gangster-in-training, and Audrey, the narrator’s mother who dies early on in the bombing that sets the whole plot in motion but haunts both the reader and the narrator for the rest of the book. Theo Decker himself is the kind of character you almost can’t believe isn’t actually a real person, so fully realized and three-dimensional is he. The final few pages of the book, meditations on art and beauty and love, are so perceptive and evocative that I turned the sentences over in my mind for hours after I finished reading.

If you haven’t bought into the hype yet, you should definitely track down The Goldfinch.

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Review: When You Reach Me

When You Reach MeWhen You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the joys of my daughters growing older is that we’re able to pass new favorite books back and forth to each other. On our recent vacation, I read When You Reach Me
on the bottom of a bunk bed while my daughter Sophie waited for me to hit her favorite parts and my other daughter Lucy waited for her turn to crack open the cover. As a result, I’ve been reading more YA fiction lately, and this one is definitely a delight.

Miranda, the narrator, is a “new classic” heroine for kids; bookish, feisty, thoughtful, funny, navigating the treacherous waters of middle school friendship and fascinated with time travel at the same time. Her favorite book, one she carries with her everywhere, is A Wrinkle in Time, and it’s an apt connection for those of us who identified with Meg Murry. There are several well-rounded boy characters too, in her classmates Sal, Colin and Marcus, and Miranda’s mother and her boyfriend are also vivid and authentic, making this a great book for adults and young adults alike. The plot is tight and fast-paced, switching deftly between the time travel mystery and Miranda’s struggle to understand why some friends stop talking to her and others come from unexpected places. Another layer of interest for adults is that the story takes place in 1978 New York City, and I promise you’ll be kept guessing as much as your kids will be.

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Review: Code Name: Verity

Code Name VerityCode Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are lots of aspects of my job to love, but one is always the moment where a student tells me she read a book and really loved it–bonus points if she adds that she hasn’t felt this way in years, or ever, or if she used to like books much more but hasn’t loved one like this in a long time.

In recent years, my department chair has launched an expanded summer reading program at my school, and the most successful innovation was having a student committee choose an all-school read for the Upper School. This year, it was The Fault in Our Stars, which was hugely popular and inspired a lot of great bookish conversations around campus. Inspired, one of my colleagues and I started brainstorming about how to encourage our students to read more for pleasure during the school year, outside of what they are assigned, to build on this momentum. We decided to recommend books to our entire Upper School at one of our Morning Meetings, using book trailers and our own enthusiasm to create a sense of community around being excited about books. The first we chose was Eleanor & Park, and it was deeply gratifying to have students come up to me over the next few weeks talking about how much they had enjoyed it.

Just in time for spring break, this time we are going to promote Code Name Verity, and I’m so excited. This is a great book for teenage girls and adult readers alike: deeply researched historical elements, two strong female protagonists, a tightly plotted story that flips and turns like a stunt plane while still staying grounded in the story of a great and true friendship. The two narrators each get to tell half the story, and my only quibble is that both are so authentic and fascinating, I could have listened to them for their own books each (though the first voice is my favorite, by a small edge).

The story takes place in war-torn England and Occupied France during World War II, and follows two young women who pilot planes and go behind enemy lines in the service of their countries. One is caught and tortured by the Gestapo while the other searches for her, determined to rescue her and take her back to England. I can’t say too much more about the plot without giving too much away–it’s the type of novel where even using a character’s name gives away a delicious twist–but Wein manages to pull off the feat of keeping us enthralled by the complicated mystery she is spinning while also making us care deeply about the two central figures.

If you like historical fiction, if you like stories about friendship and adventure, if you like to be kept guessing and then feel the startled joy of discovery, “Code Name: Verity” is for you.

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Review: Odd Girl Speaks Out

Odd Girl Speaks Out: Girls Write about Bullies, Cliques, Popularity, and JealousyOdd Girl Speaks Out: Girls Write about Bullies, Cliques, Popularity, and Jealousy by Rachel Simmons
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a recent freewrite in my classes, I asked girls to write about their “battles” in life, and what “weapons” have helped them survive and conquer them. While some wrote about specific struggles and family issues, others wrote equally about their friendships being the source of both tension and solace. As a mother of tween-age girls who seem to be growing older by the second, I was comforted to see how many wrote about their parents being their allies, and I found myself wishing I could give them all copies of the “Odd Girl” books I’ve come to find so valuable.

Odd Girl Speaks Out: Girls Write about Bullies, Cliques, Popularity, and Jealousy is a welcome companion to Rachel Simmons’ wonderful Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, and adds a welcome and authentic dimension composed primarily of girls writing about their own experiences and the lessons they learned along the way. Some girls write narratives, others poems, and some seem further along the self-forgiveness or understanding journey than others, which avoids a too-pat message that everything painful can be wrapped up in a neat bow. The personal pieces written by girls have been thematically grouped by Simmons, who also writes short framing pieces for each group that help explain the context as well as give practical advice in a girl-friendly tone that is pragmatic yet accessible, backed by the voices of the girls themselves.

After I reviewed Odd Girl Out, several friends and commenters wrote to ask if I thought it was appropriate for the girls themselves. I can now say that Odd Girl Speaks Out is the best choice here, especially if your girls, like mine, have already read much of the friendship advice aimed at a slightly younger elementary school crowd (Friends: Making Them & Keeping Them (American Girl) and Stand Up for Yourself and Your Friends: Dealing with Bullies and Bossiness and Finding a Better Way were both big hits at my house, for example, but I think my girls need the “next level” info now). I described the content briefly to my daughters and said I had left it on the hall table in case they wanted to give it a try. One of my girls went immediately out, grabbed it, and curled up on the couch for a few hours, emerging only to tell me, “This book is really good.”

While I can see myself returning to Odd Girl Out periodically over the next few years of parenting and teaching adolescent girls, I think my girls will do the same with Odd Girl Speaks Out, and I’m so pleased to have found these volumes at what seems like exactly the right time for my family.

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Review: The Alienist

The Alienist (Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, #1)The Alienist by Caleb Carr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A historical murder-mystery set in the late 1800s New York City, The Alienist is certainly engrossing, but I felt some missed potential here to transcend the crime genre and really become a work of literature. I don’t mean that in a snobby way, I enjoy true-crime from time to time and have probably read all of Ann Rule’s books, for example. Carr is wonderful on evoking this New York City, the murder mystery is nicely plotted with twists and turns, and there are some chilling scenes (teen killer Jesse Pomeroy, for example) where Carr shows you what he is capable of–I also liked how he handled the presence of Teddy Roosevelt as police commissioner in NYC at the time. However, I would have enjoyed the book more if the characters had been drawn more fully–the “good” and “bad” police officers are pretty two-dimensional and Sara Howard, who longs to be the first female police officer, never really came to live for me. I liked John Moore, our narrator, and his friendship and working partnership with Dr. Laszlo Kreizler serves well as the heart of the book (much better than the rather unrealistic romance for Kreizler). I would read more by Carr, and especially if he keeps up Kreizler as a recurring figure, but unless the characterization gets richer, he will be an enjoyable, but not quite enriching, read for me.

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Review: Americanah

AmericanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you live in Lagos, Nigeria, it is possible to move into an apartment building, look out the window at the neighboring building, and see a male peacock in full plumage. This is only one of the startling images we find in Americanah when you travel through decades and across continents with Ifemelu and Obinze, the star-crossed lovers at the heart of this insightful, funny, political-but-not-political novel. I’m giving it four stars instead of five because the ending felt a little less complex than the rest of the book had led us to believe, but I’m definitely going to seek out Adichie’s other works and look forward to following her career.

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