Friday, January 23, 2015

SIDEWAYS STORIES FROM WAYSIDE SCHOOL

Review of SIDEWAYS STORIES FROM WAYSIDE SCHOOL by LOUIS SACHAR

This was a fun one to re-read. SIDEWAYS STORIES was one of my absolute favorites back in elementary school and I read it over and over dozens of times. See, Wayside School is a little...unusual. For starters, the school was meant to have 30 classrooms all on the ground level, but instead the builder accidentally made the school 30 stories high with one classroom on each floor. The 30 chapters (or stories) in this book each follow one of the equally unusual characters inhabiting such a place.

Really, what’s sideways about Wayside School is the logic. The opening story tells of a mean teacher who turns students into apples at the slightest provocation. My favorites include the one about John, who can only read upside down; the one about Bebe, a budding artist who learns a valuable lesson about quantity vs. quality; and, of course, Chapter 19 about the mysterious 19th story.

I do admit that I didn’t adore this as much as I did when I was nine. It’s still a fun read as an adult, but what seemed uproariously funny as a child is more often just silly and bizarre now that I’m older. However, I still highly recommend SIDEWAYS STORIES for kids and think there’s nevertheless some content and subtext that will appeal to adults as well. Many of these crazy stories emphasize important life lessons through hyperbole. Like Joe, who is taught that doing something the “right” way is as important as actually having the correct answer. Or Kathy, who invents a reason to hate everyone.

The truth is we could all benefit from a little sideways logic now and again.

Friday, January 16, 2015

WHAT WOULD JANE DO?


Review of WHAT WOULD JANE DO?: QUIPS AND WISDOM FROM JANE AUSTEN

It’s no secret how many women already pull quotes for fervent admiration from Jane Austen’s work. I have enjoyed what I’ve read of Austen so far and intend to eventually read everything she has written, but I’ve never been obsessed with her work. However, reading so many of her brilliantly insightful and witty quotes one after the other after the other only elevated by already high opinion of Austen and now I feel I understand how some people can be consumed with her work.

The collection organizes Austen’s copious wisdom into 10 chapters. There’s so much to love, but I pulled an excellent example from each chapter.

How to be Happier Than You Deserve:

“Your countenance perfectly informs me that you were in company last night with the person who interests you at this present time, more than all the rest of the world put together.”
- Persuasion

Good Impressions for Great Ladies:

“Every neighborhood should have a great lady.”
- Sanditon

Mistress of Myself :

“As for admiration, it was always very welcome when it came, but she did depend on it.”
- Northanger Abbey

Check Yourself, Dear:

“A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves; vanity, to what we would have others think of us.”
- Pride andPrejudice

Get to know your gentleman:

“If there is any thing disagreeable going on, men are always sure to get out of it.”
- Persuasion

If You Really Like Him:

“I suppose there may be a hundred different ways on being in love.”
- Emma

Intimate Acquaintances:

“My good qualities are under your protection, and you are to exaggerate them as much as possible; and, in return, it belongs to me to find occasion for teasing and quarreling with you as often as may be.”
- Pride and Prejudice

Sensible Quips for Every Occasion:

“I will not say that your mulberry-trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive.” - Letters

I’d Rather Be with a Book (unsurprisingly, my favorite section):

“How much sooner one tire of any thing than of a book! - When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”
- Pride and Prejudice

Looking Back on Important Nothings:

“Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”
- Mansfield Park

I also wanted to direct attention to some of my personal favorites:

“A fondness for reading...properly directed, must be an education in itself.”
- Mansfield Park

“I am not at all in a humour for writing; I must write on till I am.”
- Letters

“I will be calm. I will be mistress of myself.”
- Sense and Sensibility

“Silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way.”
- Emma

“I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”
- Letters

I know I quoted a lot here, but believe it or not I left out so many more of my favorites. After all, this book is packed with the best of Jane Austen...so there isn’t a weak link!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Favorite Books Read in 2014


For those who have been following my blog throughout the year, the books on this list won’t come as a surprise. I write long reviews, though, so below you can find much shorter descriptions of my favorite books from 2014. All the books I reviewed or authors I interviewed are linked to the original post.

Note that these are books I read in 2014, not necessarily books published in 2014.

1.     F IN EXAMS by RICHARD BENSON

Not everyone can get 100% on a test, but this book exemplifies the best of wrong. From the students who figure if they don’t know the answer they might as well be sassy to those who humorously confuse very different words or concepts, this collection of real life test answers had me laughing so hard it hurt. 

2.     QUIET by SUSAN CAIN

I think every introvert and every extrovert needs to read this book, so, yes, I’m saying everyone needs to read this book. For introverts it’s validation and for extroverts it’s insight and perspective. I identify as a quiet person and yet I can’t shut up about QUIET.


Every dog lover needs a copy of this collection of underwater dog photos on their coffee table. Don’t underestimate the humor of dogs’ muzzles ballooning out like swim trunks!


Every year a mysterious schoolmaster kidnaps two children from Sophie and Agatha’s village and whisks them away, one to a school for good and one to a school for evil. Except when sweet, beautiful, girly Sophie is sent to the school for evil to become a witch while dark, tactless, grumpy Agatha finds herself in training to be a princess, Sophie knows there must have been a mistake.


When Laurel’s English teacher asks everyone to write a letter addressed to someone dead, what starts out as an English assignment turns into a lifeline. Rather than turn in her assignment, Laurel continues writing letter after letter to her favorite deceased figures. It’s a unique journal-ish format for an utterly heartfelt novel about those tumultuous teenage years.

6.     STABLE STRATEGIES AND OTHERS by EILEEN GUNN

This collection of science fiction short stories does exactly what all great science fiction does: both entertain and make you think. My favorites include a sad and creepy tale about a little girl who can’t let go of something she wasn’t supposed to hear, as well as a unique take on the classic “first contact” stem of science fiction.

7.     THE RELUCTANT HEIRESS by EVA IBBOTSON

Ibbotson is a master of sweet, silly young adult historical romances. This one features a down-on-her-luck countess who takes a job far beneath her class and keeps her title secret. An assorted, delightful cast and plenty of witty humor makes this another rewarding read from Ibbotson.

8.     WHEN PARENTS TEXT by LAUREN KAELIN and SOPHIA FRAIOLI

This hilarious collection pulls real life examples of parental texting gone wrong. Within these pages, you’ll encounter everything from misused and fabricated emoticons and abbreviations to those gloriously entertaining spell check errors to just plain amusing content. Had me laughing aloud from beginning to end.

9.     THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS by MARINA KEEGAN

This eclectic collection of Keegan’s work both impressed and moved me. My favorites include a short story where a girl’s misgivings about her romantic relationship can be summarized with a game of Yahtzee and a nonfiction piece about Keegan’s experiences growing up celiac.

10.  BURIAL RITES by HANNAH KENT

In Iceland in 1829 a young woman is convicted of a brutal murder, possibly two, and a family is charged with housing her until her execution. Quick, easy judgments shift as close quarters slowly force empathy and perspective.

11.  SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL by HERMAN KOCH

This superbly written novel opens after one of Dr. Marc Schlosser’s patients, a famous actor, dies. Within chapters the actor’s wife bursts into Marc’s practice and accuses him of murder. Then the story backtracks and tells everything that led up to this confrontation.

12.  A SNICKER OF MAGIC by NATALIE LLOYD

This whimsical middle reader novel adds a sprinkle of magic to the everyday with a young heroine who can “see” words. Felicity’s family moves back to her mother’s home town, but it’s not the first time they’ve moved and Felicity fears it won’t be the last; as people say, her mama has a wandering heart.

13.  WE WERE LIARS by E. LOCKHART

I perceived this as an average book that builds to an incredible ending. Cady comes from a beautiful, rich, passionate family and spends every summer in bliss messing around at their summerhouse with her best friends. Until one summer when something bad happened and Cady hit her head, causing some amnesia; now the memories are slowly coming back, much as Cady might wish they wouldn’t.


This incredible young adult historical novel opens with fourteen-year-old Mary Howard’s marriage to Henry FitzRoy. What starts as an amusing tale about a teenage girl desperate for a kiss from her own husband turns into an empowering and affecting story of personal growth that rates high on my 2014 favorites list.

15.  A STORM OF SWORDS by GEORGE R.R. MARTIN

This third installment in the popular medieval fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire introduces some new perspectives, such as Jamie Lannister. Brace yourself for a plethora of characters, betrayal, intrigue, violence, and death. For huge books, these feel like surprisingly fast reads.  


This incredible series definitely tops my favorites of the year. In each book, Meyer brilliantly twists a different fairy tale, starting with Cinderella. Except in this case Cinderella (or Cinder) is a cyborg in a future that treats cyborgs as second-class citizens.

17.  ALL MY FRIENDS ARE DEAD by AVERY MONSEN and JORY JOHN

The illustrations might put you in mind of a picture book, but this is no children’s story. Each page features an (often sad-sack) image of someone or something with an (especially sad) announcement, such the dinosaur of the cover declaring, “All my friends are dead.”

18.  BIG LITTLE LIES by LIANE MORIARTY

This one belongs high on my favorites list. We know from the start that someone was murdered at the elementary school’s parent trivia bee and then the story backtracks, with snippets from police interviews at the end of each chapter. The book sneaks up on you as a hilarious satire of wealthy mothers and then slowly shifts into something far more real, far more serious, and far more affecting.

19.  CITADEL by KATE MOSSE

In France, during World War II, a group of clever, resolute young women form their own resistance group. While many dismiss any movement organized by women, one particular adversary becomes obsessed with obliterating their organization and anyone involved. The characters make this novel exceptional, each presenting a distinct perspective as well as an extraordinary collective courage.

20.  EMPIRE OF IVORY and VICTORY OF EAGLES by NAOMI NOVIK

The fourth and fifth installments in the agreeable Temeraire series continue the adventures set in an alternate history where there’s an additional branch of the military devoted to dragons and their riders fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. These books feature a surprising level of charm and taste for any series about war and delight me every time with both the wonderful writing and the touching relationship between the dragon Temeraire and the human Laurence.

21.  STARTERS by LISSA PRICE

In a post-apocalyptic future, a sketchy company offers young orphans living in poverty a chance to make a fortune: just rent out their body. I’m not talking about prostitution, but rather neurological advancements that allow scientists to put someone’s mind to sleep and let another person take control of and experience life through that body. Callie knows full well what a horrific concept this sounds like, but with no home, no money, no parents, and an ill younger brother to take care of it also sounds like her only hope.


This delightful mystery series following our narrator - the dog Chet - and his owner - private investigator Bernie - continues with a new case each book as well as overarching plot threads about Bernie’s personal life.  Chet provides an amusing and unique perspective to the familiar mystery genre; the question isn’t whether a dog can solve the crime but whether he can stay focused long enough to do so. Squirrel!

23.  THE BUNNY SUICIDES by ANDY RILEY

Anyone with a slightly morbid sense of humor will find plenty to adore in these humorously horrific collections of cartoons that all feature bunnies inventing increasingly elaborate ways to commit suicide.

24.  THE GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME by JENNIFER E. SMITH

Smith tells a wonderful modern love story in this young adult novel. Thanks to a city-wide blackout, Lucy and Owen have an unexpected meeting and the night of their lives...only to then be whisked off on different life paths before they can explore the very possibility of a relationship. Time passes and both their lives carry on, but neither forgets about the other.


I adored the heroine of this addictive two-part novel, a determined and resourceful (if a bit ornery) young woman who spearheads a near hopeless rebellion against a cruel king. Part One of this novel focuses on war and physical challenges while Part Two shifts towards politics and verbal challenges. I resented whenever life made me put the book down. 

26.  COZY CLASSICS by HOLMAN & JACK WANG

Though designed for a younger audience, these board book takes on famous classics will also find plenty of fans among grown-up avid readers. Each page features a single word as well as a photograph of meticulously hand crafted felt dolls. It’s hilarious seeing a lengthy tome like WAR AND PEACE summarized with a mere dozen words and scenes.


Travis died from cancer at sixteen years old, but before he did he agreed to be part of an experimental surgery that could potentially bring him back to life. Though the unbelievable science fiction premise of this young adult novel didn’t initially appeal to me, the story, earnest characters, and genuine emotion made it one of my top favorites of the year. 

28.  COCKTAILS FOR THREE by MADELEINE WICKHAM

The master of chick lit delivers another fun, easy read. This book follows three women, best friends who work for the same magazine. Roxanne is foolishly but helplessly in love with a married man, Maggie is nervous about her new role as a stay-at-home mom, and Candice unintentionally invites disaster into all their lives by trying to help the wrong person.

29.  THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY by GABRIELLE ZEVIN

While I would recommend this book to anyone, it’s a must-read for bibliophiles, and booksellers in particular. Cynical bookstore-owner A.J. Fikry thinks he’s seen (okay, well, read) it all. Even the baby left, more or less, on his doorstep is a story cliché...and yet one that will prove stories are primarily about the people inside them.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Read What You Want!


This can be filed under: Problems Only Bibliophiles Have. And note that I’m using the word “problem” loosely here. I’m talking about the too many books, too little time conundrum, but in particular about how when you surround yourself with readers you start receiving recommendations for and pressure towards certain books from all directions. Some I adore. Others show that person and I have very different taste. Yet despite the great ones, sometimes I specifically want to read something I found myself.

Most avid readers can relate to that feeling of discovery. It’s an entirely different experience purchasing a book you sought out vs. happening upon one that catches your eye.

I receive recommendations from numerous sources: family and friends, co-workers (especially when I worked in a bookstore), people I meet at conferences, authors, editors, publishers, people who want me to review their book on my blog, and reading reviews. Frankly, I receive more recommendations than I will ever realistically have time to read. So if I prioritize recommendations over my own discoveries, I quickly find myself frustrated that there’s no time left for books that I’m reading simply because I want to read them even though no one has told me to do so.

Some of these recommendations come with a certain amount of pressure, too. As a writer, bookseller, and reviewer there’s an expectation that I will keep up with what’s current, which makes older books much lower priority than those recently or soon to be published. Personal recommendations often seem higher priority merely because someone will keep asking, “Have you read that yet?” - a consistent reminder to make time for it next.

In the spirit of the New Year, I encourage all readers (especially those who feel pressure from one source or other to read certain books) to ensure that every now and again you read something that no one is telling you to read. Every now and then, go into a bookstore or a library or peruse your own shelves and read exactly what you want to read.

Friday, December 26, 2014

SETH CASTEEL


Interview with SETH CASTEEL

Seth Casteel is an award-winning photographer and the author of the New York Times best selling books UNDERWATER DOGS and UNDERWATER PUPPIES. Seth lives in Venice, CA. He loves 80's music and is a fan of the DeLorean automobile. He plans to one day go back in time, and change nothing. His rescue dog, Baby Nala, has accepted the fact that she will be photographed every single day. People often say that Seth and Nala have similar hairstyles. 

What first sparked your interest in photography?

CATS!

What do you love the most about photography?

To tell a story and to create awareness through a single picture.

What are your passions?

ANIMALS!

What inspires you?

DOGS!

How was UNDERWATER DOGS born?


Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

Take chances and pursue a subject that you are passionate about! 

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?

I have a secret obsession with dragonflies! 

Friday, December 19, 2014

THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS


Review of THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS by MARINA KEEGAN

Someone gave me this book and, at a glance, I didn’t expect it would align with my literary tastes. Now I feel more like that person knows me better than I know myself! This whole collection resonated with me more than I ever could have anticipated. 

It’s a sad backstory. Marina Keegan, a gifted and determined aspiring writer, died five days after graduating from Yale. She had a job lined up at the New Yorker and this collection serves as ample evidence of her writing aptitude. Youth is coveted because it represents potential, which is why unexpected deaths often seem all the more tragic the younger the victim. Keegan had an abundance of potential, but rather than focus on what won’t be let’s instead focus on what she did accomplish, a list that includes the contents of this collection of her notably astute writing.

The collection features both fiction and nonfiction, but opens with the fiction. The first story, “Cold Pastoral,” demonstrates Keegan’s capability for capturing the complexity of real human experiences, relationships, and emotions. Keegan explores the intersection of awkward and tragic. Claire, a college student, doesn’t know what to feel when her regular hookup dies. Their relationship wasn’t defined: they spent a lot of time together, had sex regularly, and doubtless both cared for each other, but still shied away from terms like boyfriend and girlfriend. Now people expect Claire to say something at his funeral and his long-term ex-girlfriend wants a strange favor. As I read this story, I couldn’t help thinking that this is exactly the type of tense situation that overdramatic televisions shows like to utilize for huge blowup confrontation scenes. In contrast, everything in “Cold Pastoral” is coolly understated, drawing attention to the line between behaving civilly and repressing emotion. My only criticism is that I found minor mentions of gay characters reinforced some insensitive stigmas.

In the next story, “Winter Break,” another college student brings her boyfriend home and their sweetness makes her mother doubt her own relationship. Like “Cold Pastoral,” emotions and revelations are all subtle and understated. There’s little closure regarding any final decision; the story focuses more on the catalyst.

You know it’s a good collection when you struggle picking a favorite story, but “The Ingenue” definitely falls near the top of my list. This one features a young woman who suspects her long distance actor boyfriend is cheating on her with the girl he kisses every night in his play. The story builds to a positively perfect literary moment during a game of Yahtzee. However, I think the story should have ended at that powerful moment; I didn’t like the end much and think it weakens a strong story.

“Hail, Full of Grace” continues Keegan’s exploration of real, complicated life. Audrey’s home for the holidays and just knows she can’t avoid running into her ex, her ex who she dated throughout high school and into college, who clearly thought they were meant for each until Audrey got pregnant and gave up the baby for adoption. Fast forward through her life: romance hasn’t worked out for her. Everyone told her she couldn’t stay with her high school sweetheart, but she never fell in love again. Now she’s ready for kids, so she adopted a baby on her own, but it’s impossible not to reflect on what might have been. I loved this story, but still wanted Keegan to take it a little farther. It’s one of those stories that feels like it halts too soon after it starts rolling.

Moving into Keegan’s nonfiction, I had three favorites there as well. The first, “Why We Care about Whales,” uses a memory of beached whales to pose a concern: “I worry sometimes that humans are afraid of helping humans.” Keegan notes how people rush to help these whales and draws attention to instances where humans spend inordinate amounts of time, money, and effort on helping animals that might already be doomed and yet label neighbor or co-worker crises as “not my problem.” I found this essay really wonderful, not the least bit shy of asking hard questions.

I also particularly enjoyed “Against the Grain” about Keegan’s experiences as a celiac. As she’s the first to acknowledge, this is a timely subject with the popularity of gluten-free products and diets. However, she falls in the category of avoids due to necessity rather than preference. She spent much of her early years in and out of hospitals until doctors eventually pinpointed gluten as the troublesome factor. Keegan reminds her readers that gluten-free might be trendy now, but it was little known and even less understood during her childhood. This story is as much about Keegan’s relationship with her mother as it is about gluten. Once aware of the problem, Keegan’s mother championed her daughter’s health. She researched extensively, calling product companies directly for specific, accurate information. She always thought ahead, going around the neighborhood at Halloween and suggesting some gluten-free candy options to the neighbors. When Keegan went to college, her mother fought hard for new protocol in the dining hall that required a clear listing of ingredients for every food. Keegan herself struggled between gratitude for all her mother does and irritation that she frequently calls attention to how Keegan is different. Keegan shares an unsettling story about when she and her mother watched a video of Keegan’s first birthday. In the video her mother brings out the birthday cake and they all start singing “Happy Birthday.” In real life her mother starts hyperventilating and crying and repeats, “I’m killing you. I’m killing you.” Keegan’s real death adds another emotional layer to all her musings here, because she spent so much time working to ensure minor amounts of gluten don’t ultimately shorten her lifespan - and then she died at age 22 in car crash.

The last of my favorite nonfiction pieces is “Putting the ‘Fun’ Back in Eschatology,” in which Keegan puts her own struggle with the meaning and purpose of life and mankind on paper. We’re all going to die eventually, she points out - not in the individual sense but mankind will die eventually. Despite all this understandable concern over pushing back on environmental issues before they catch up with us, the earth has a lifespan. When the sun dies, so will life on Earth. Now we’re talking billions of years, but what made this essay so fascinating for me is that Keegan poses the theory that mankind is being tested...from a scientific perspective rather than a religious one. This test has a time limit, though. The only task: develop our technology enough to find a sustainable way to either live in space or relocate to another planet before the timer (the sun) runs out. It’s a short essay that mostly initiates a discussion rather than runs with it and you can easily argue that it’s all a moot point if we kill ourselves off long before the sun dies, but nevertheless it’s an interesting and engaging debate.

I found Keegan’s work a little stronger on the fiction side, but that could easily be my personal preference for fiction talking. Across both formats, she keeps her work smart but simple with understated messages. Both her fiction and nonfiction are clearly very well-researched with her fiction featuring characters from all kinds of different backgrounds. Her fiction simply feels real, with dynamic characters and a natural voice.

By the end of this collection, I found myself crying purely about Keegan’s death rather than anything in her work. She puts so much of herself into her stories and essays that over the course of these 200 pages I started to feel like I knew her and then to feel her loss, both as a writer and a person, more sharply. I’m grateful to everyone who championed Keegan’s work to see this collection through to publication; it was worth every ounce of effort.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Bechdel Test


Gender equality has always been an important issue to me. You see bias (of all types and directions) everywhere, but I feel infuriated when sexism sneaks up on me in what I hoped would be a relaxing read.

The Bechdel test is used for quickly assessing gender bias in a work of fiction, whether a novel, movie, play, television show, etc. It’s named for Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist who had one of her characters in a comic strip first express this idea. The test is very simple. If the story doesn’t meet three criteria, it should take a good look at how it represents women. The criteria are:

1.     There are at least two female characters... (Some interpretations of this test specify that the characters should be prominent enough to at least be named.)
2.     ...who speak to each other at some point during the story...
3.     ...about something other than a man.

My first reaction to this was: That’s all? Yet statistics on how many books, and especially how many movies, fail this test are shocking...which means we’re still reinforcing unvoiced messages that women don’t have or deserve a voice. Any woman, and I should hope most men, know women talk about plenty of other things besides men: non-romantic relationships (friends, family, co-workers), intellectual discussions, aspirations. The list is limitless. So why does the scope of women’s conversation in some stories feel so limited? 

A story can pass the Bechdel test and still contain sexist content or messages, but it's a fast, easy way to take stock of how frequently women are dismissed in fiction. So next time you read a book, see a play, or watch a movie keep in mind the Bechdel test. Even stories I've loved sometimes fail this. I rarely enjoy something without any female characters, but you would be surprised to count up how many feature only one prominent woman among a cast of men.