Jane

About Jane

I'm a Youth Services Librarian and story addict who will happily read everything and anything, from picture books and easy readers to comics and novels in verse to classics and thousand-page nonfiction monsters. My desk is full of antique teacups, invention kits and clothes-pin alligators, which says more or less everything about my philosophy on kids and libraries. During those rare moments when I'm not reading or listening to a book, you can find me cooking, writing, falling in love with a new podcast, fooling around with any kind of game (video or paper) with a strong story and sense of atmosphere, or binge-watching House of Cards.

1000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich

Book – As a compulsive maker of to-read lists (you too?), I’ve always been dubious about letting anybody else choose my books for me. Sure, I wanted guidance about great titles I might otherwise have missed, longing for both a roadmap to self-education and advice on what to read for entertainment, but many book lists seemed one-note. Usually such lists contained only dense adult fiction classics, often heavy and depressing, almost universally written by English-speaking Westerners, the vast majority of them men.  Most annoyingly, none of the compilers seemed to remember that reading ought to be fun.

If I doubted that anyone would ever write the to-read list I’d been waiting for, I was delighted to be proven wrong.1000 Books to Read Before You Die is, despite the title, gloriously unpretentious, utterly inclusive and instantly convinced me to trust the author’s taste. Sure, about a dozen Shakespeare plays abound, and includes Waiting for Godot and the Confessions of St. Augustine, but they jostle elbows with Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of her dysfunctional family, multiple picture books by Margaret Wise Brown, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, and even The Da Vinci Code. Mustich’s selections run the gamut from: fiction and nonfiction; children’s, YA and adult; ancient and brand-new; popular entertainment to serious philosophy and everything in-between. From a memoir of the moon landing to the greatest of all children’s novels,  to an anthropologist’s look at Australian Aboriginal culture, a prototypical hardboiled noir to a firsthand examination of race in present-day America--and that’s just among authors whose names start with C. Mustich offers a book for every taste, interest and mood.

My only complaint: it should really be titled:  one thousand and one books. 1000 Books to Read is surprisingly devourable. Mustich’s essays on his book selections are charming, thought-provoking and incisive–that you’ll want to read it cover to cover.

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

BookPixar have made their fortunes by providing an easy shorthand, a brand identity built on children’s movies that adults will actually enjoy on their own merits. Children’s books that pull off the same trick can be more difficult to find. Even as adults reading YA lit has become a commonplace, it’s unusual to consider the adult appeal of books in the children’s section. Which is a shame, because the best children’s novels can be every bit as entertaining to older readers, hidden gems that are too often left on the shelf.

Three Times Lucky, the first in the four-book Mo and Dale Mysteries series and one of the most transportively atmospheric books I’ve read all year. Three Times Lucky is chock-full of charmingly eccentric characters drawn with marvelous literary efficiency, especially the narrator, eleven-year-old Moses ‘Mo’ LoBeau. A literary cousin to Scout of To Kill a Mockingbird, Mo is a believable mix of precocious and naive, scrappy but allowed to be scared in situations too big for a child, a smart-aleck and a schemer with buckets of charisma and bottomless loyalty. The mystery and adventure plots of Three Times Lucky are a little too much to be wholly believable (a decades-old bank robbery and a dark and stormy night are involved), but to mind about that would be missing the point. There’s too much to love about Mo, her adoptive family, her friends, and their tiny town of Tupelo Landing, N.C.

It may sound strange to compare a PG-rated children’s book to the dark, heavy, adult subject matter of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects–especially the excellent miniseries version–but actually, it’s surprisingly apt. In both cases, the perfectly-rendered atmosphere of a small southern town, and the outsized characters living there, make for stories that will linger in your consciousness long after their conclusions. While the perhaps more obvious comparison would be to Flavia de Luce (and any Flavia fans should absolutely seek Mo out), I would also recommend Three Times Lucky to anyone who enjoys stories driven by eccentric characters like those in Maria Semple‘s books, or who loves a book with a palpable sense of place.

Grace and Fury by Tracy E. Banghart

Book – I have spent far more time thinking about Grace and Fury than it deserves, because it’s a perfect illustration of a strange truth: writers who are good at one part of their craft are not necessarily good at others, and a book can therefore be both a good book and a bad book at the same time.

A brief overview to start: Grace and Fury is a dystopian YA novel best described as a cross between The Selection Series and The Hunger Games with a topical dash of The Handmaid’s Tale. In a society where women are forbidden to read, one compliant young woman has been trained all her life for the prestigious role of “Grace,” an official mistress to the future king, while her rebellious young sister is expected to act as her servant.  Naturally, the wrong sister is chosen for Grace, landing in the middle of court politics she’s deeply unprepared for–while her elder sister is banished to a prison island where she’ll have to fight to survive.

I’ll start with the rough stuff, to get it out of the way.  The characterization in Grace and Fury is weak at best, and the plotting is downright bad.  Coincidence is allowed to drive the story far too often.  The characters are forced to change by their circumstances, but their growth usually isn’t believable or earned.  Characters are divided strictly into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’–a particularly sad vice in a dystopian story, where there’s infinite room for complicity born of fear and similar shades of gray.  Worst of all, the story is full of moments when the audience will cotton to secondary characters’ motives long before the naive heroes do, even though we’re not given any information that the heroes don’t have.

But here’s the kicker: the worldbuilding isn’t terrible, and the pacing is actually pretty excellent.  I knew early on that this wasn’t the book for me, but I kept reading it, because the author does know how to write a hook.  It’s a quick, easy read, and I mean that as a compliment–making a book that the reader is compelled to keep reading is a skill that many authors would envy.

I think that a lot of popular books–Dan Brown’s novels and the Twilight series, for a start–excite comment and controversy for existing at exactly this intersection of high readability with weaker quality in other areas.  And I don’t mean to sound like I’m knocking anybody who enjoys those books, or this one.  Different readers read for different reasons, the same reader can read for different things at different times, and everybody has their own guidelines for which literary flaws constitute their deal-breakers.

I happen to be an intensely character-driven reader, so for me, Grace and Fury was a bust.  But I bet it’ll be popular with readers anyway, because lots of people rate pacing more highly than I do in a reading experience–and I hope those readers find this book, because they deserve a read they’ll love.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Book – Some books ripen in a certain season, and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a perfect summer book to me: gossipy, escapist and propulsive, but not lacking in substance.  It’s been months since I’ve been in the mood to read fiction, but Evelyn is so addictive that I gobbled my way through its 400 pages in less than a day, and resented the hours when it had to be out of my hand.

The novel’s title character is a household name, a beloved film star whose career began in the 1950s and who is now (in roughly the present) setting her affairs in order.  Most pressingly, that means offering her first interview in decades to a young reporter named Monique who doesn’t understand why she is Evelyn’s hand-picked choice–and is even more astonished when Evelyn tells her that she has been chosen not as an interviewer, but to write Evelyn’s authorized biography.  Monique’s sections in the present alternate with (and are utterly eclipsed by) Evelyn’s first-person recollections of her eventful past, including the true story behind those seven spouses–and the secret eighth.

Evelyn Hugo is a ‘popcorn book,’ to be sure, wrapped in the glitz and glamor of Hollywood and more focused on entertaining its audience than stretching their minds.  But that doesn’t mean that it avoids deeper topics–especially identity, and the ways we shape, obscure, invent, discard, forget and rediscover parts of ourselves.  It’s historical but very timely, touching on questions of race, gender, sexuality, class, abuse, and what it means to grow up and grow old.  It’s a book about the compromises we make to have what we want and to be seen as who we want to be, and I highly recommend it for your next quick summer read.

Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time by Ray Padgett

Book – The phrase ‘book of essays’ always suggests to me something stodgy, solemn and old-fashioned–until I remember that every Buzzfeed article is an essay by another name. Cover Me actually started as a series of posts on the author’s blog, and that pedigree shows, in a good way.  It’s a compilation of nineteen bite-sized nuggets of popular music history, exactly the kind of irresistible stories that can keep a reader clicking through to the next page until the small hours of the morning.

Author Padgett is a music producer as well as a writer, and his industry knowledge informs and enriches these impeccably-written essays.  Even after many years of blogging on the subject of cover songs (songs re-recorded by a different artist than the original) he was hesitant to delve into the subject in book form, because cover songs are not exactly a unifying theme.  They belong to no one particular era, genre or movement–but that fact in itself makes them an ideal vehicle for a macro-view of popular music as a whole, at least the past 65-ish years of English-language popular songs.  “Every major change in the music industry since the advent of rock and roll finds some expression in the world of cover songs,” Padgett writes, and he does an admirable job of delving into those larger connections and significances to make each song tell a larger story.  Moreover, he writes history the way it should be written: as a series of human stories, emotional and compelling as well as informative.

As a casual music history fan, I was nervous that Cover Me would be a music snob’s book for experts only, but was pleasantly surprised.  I already not only knew, but knew the words to, almost every song discussed, including all-time greats like Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” and the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout.”  This is definitely a book to enjoy with YouTube on hand, to listen (or, in the case of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” and the accompanying music video, watch) along to every variation of the featured songs.  Revisiting classics in this rich new way was a genuine joy, and I would recommend it to every teen and adult reader with even a slight interest in popular music or music history.

Why’d They Wear That? by Sarah Albee

Book – Did you know that traditional Inuit sealskin mittens have two thumbs, so they can be flipped and worn the other way when the palms get wet?

That’s not the kind of intriguing tidbit I’d expect to pick up from a book on the history of fashion, but it’s only one of the ways that Why’d They Wear That? exceeded my expectations.  Most books on historical clothing are big, glossy coffee table books from museum presses.  That’s great as a visual feast, but the focus of such books tends to be narrow, and the text is often dense, dry and in tiny font.

Why’d They Wear That? gloriously smashes that mold, but without sacrificing either visual pleasure–it’s bright, bold and gorgeous–or quality of information.  It’s playful in tone, deeply readable and, most importantly of all to me, focuses on whys as well as whats, delving into the practical and societal causes and consequences of what people wear, such as the significance of indigo dye to colonialism and Anglo-Indian relations.  And it’s wonderfully broad in scope, not only covering a vast stretch of time but also–as in the Inuit example above–maintaining a truly global perspective.

Obviously with so much to cover in a slim 200 pages, Why’d They Wear That? provides more of an overview than an in-depth examination.  But as a casual read for a cozy afternoon, it’s a fabulous choice for anyone (adults too, despite its home in Juvenile Nonfiction!) who’s interested in costuming, fashion or history.

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine by Mark Twain and Philip Stead

Book – This is the curse of children’s literature: a new Harper Lee book for adults becomes one of the most buzzed-about subjects in America for weeks after its arrival, but a new book from Mark Twain–Mark Twain–goes almost unnoticed even among bibliophiles just because it happens to live in the juvenile section.  The unfairness only becomes more pronounced when the book in question is as breathtakingly wonderful in every way as The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine.

Twain scholars have long been aware of Twain’s fragmentary notes in his journal of a bedtime story he told his daughters, but only in 2011 did a researcher put the pieces together and match up that outline with an unfinished story draft in a Twain archive.  The project was handed off to Caldecott-winning author-illustrator pair Philip and Erin Stead, who, undaunted by posthumous collaboration with arguably the greatest American author of all time, have produced an absolutely beautiful book.  In length, style and feel it reminds me most of The Little Prince, and is suitable for a similarly unlimited audience: it would make an excellent family read-aloud, as well as a fine solo read for every age.  And as with The Little Prince, it’s difficult to describe exactly what The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine is about.

It’s a fairy tale, certainly, about a young boy in a difficult circumstance, learning to talk to animals and finding family, but the ‘what’ is almost irrelevant; its charm is in the telling.  Stead’s insertions, rather than aiming for a seamlessness that would be almost impossible to achieve, are instead embroidered in with a playful and metafictional sweetness that enhances the mood rather than breaking it.  As with any Twain story, this one is funny, wry, compassionate, honest and humane.  You owe it to yourself to make the trip into the children’s department for this one–it’ll be the most magical hour you spend with a book for months.

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

Book – The summer of 1976 is the hottest in recent memory, and Mrs. Creasy has disappeared from the Avenue.  Grace and Tillie, both aged ten, are determined to get to the bottom of the case, but secrets run deep in their little suburb, and the more they investigate the mystery, the further they find themselves drawn into their community’s shared and troubling past–all starting with the long-ago disappearance of a little girl.

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is a hard book to categorize; it doesn’t really fit well into any type of mystery I know.  It doesn’t feature much actual detective work, and while we the readers learn the full story of What Happened through flashbacks, most of the characters do not.  As such, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep might better be considered as a work of literary fiction or coming-of-age story with mystery elements.

I think that my own vague feeling of letdown at the end of the book was a result of trying to force it to fit a more traditional mystery mold, but the fact that I made it to the end at all is evidence of its good points.  The author’s voice is compelling, and the novel’s themes are deep, exploring community, memory, scapegoating and the ways that fear and guilt can twist human behavior.  As a fan of ensemble stories, I enjoyed the large cast of complex and not-always-likeable characters.  As a whole, I found it a sufficiently intriguing debut novel to have hope for the author’s sophomore outing.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Book – “What’s your favorite book?” is a cruel and unusual question to ask any librarian, but when absolutely forced to give an answer, Good Omens is where I tend to land.  In an effort to keep this review from getting too gushing, then, I’m going to try to focus more on comparisons than description, because allowing me near superlatives in this case is a dangerous prospect.  Let me just give the basics on plot–namely, it’s a humorous take on the Apocalypse (no, really)–and hurry from there to the land of “you’ll like this if”.

The obvious ones first: if you already enjoy the solo work of either Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett, then Good Omens is unquestionably worth your time.  Even though it was written before the explosion of the internet and the resulting acceleration of mashup culture, it’s a perfect example of the kind of textual remixing that both writers did and do so well, deconstructing classic stories and themes and rebuilding them into something fresh and self-aware.  It has all of Sir Terry’s boundless humor (and footnotes!) and sudden moments of profound emotional insight, with Gaiman’s unpretentious lyricism and finger on the pulse of the collective unconscious, and it reads so seamlessly that it’s impossible to tell that it comes from two different authors.

But you by no means need to already be a fan of either writer to love Good Omens; it was the first thing I read of either of theirs, and I was hooked from page one.  If you already love Douglas Adams, Monty Python, Eddie Izzard or Christopher Moore, you’re a shoe-in; Good Omens is all about that same irreverent sense of humor.  It’s a great choice, too, for fans of Roald Dahl or Ray Bradbury or  Kurt Vonnegut, sharing their sometimes dark yet deeply compassionate lens on humanity.  It’s for fantasy and sci-fi fans, but for humor fans too.  It’s for the reader who wants a quick read that deserves to be called ‘light’ yet tackles big themes and doesn’t shy away from emotional impact.  It’s for pretty much anybody who doesn’t mind allowing humor and religion to mix (never, in my opinion, in a way that mocks anyone or their beliefs).  And it is–to allow myself just the one moment of gushing–an absolute, unqualified delight.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R.R. Martin

BookGame of Thrones is off the air again (the season seven finale hasn’t aired at time of writing, so I can say without fear of spoilers that I just bet it was spectacular) and The Winds of Winter still has no release date. What’s a Song of Ice and Fire fan to do?

In my extremely informal survey of Martin fans, I’ve found that even among heavy readers who’ve enjoyed the five books of the main Song of Ice and Fire series, few have taken the relatively brief (~350 page) foray into the prequel world of the Dunk and Egg.  That’s a crying shame. Planned for an eventual series of about nine, the first three Dunk and Egg novellas, collected under the title A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, are an absolute treat of a read. That said, they are very different to the main series, featuring none of the same characters and, more importantly, a significant tonal shift. Where the main Westeros novels espouse an almost noir-ishly grim, nice-guys-finish-last-and-without-their-heads morality, the stories of lowborn Ser Duncan the Tall and his squire–the boy who will someday become King Aegon the Unlikely–have an absolutely opposite feel, old-fashioned in a good way. Here, 100 years before Game of Thrones, chivalry and innocence are still very much alive and well. Ser Duncan is far from pampered, and certainly the stories see their share of moral complexity and bad things happening to good people, but ultimately kindness, generosity, honor and compassion are allowed to win the day.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is as page-turningly compelling as A Song of Ice and Fire, but with a brisker pace, a narrower scope, and, as aforementioned, a welcome optimistic tone. For any reader–even one new to Martin’s work–who needs a charming, well-written break from death and destruction (whether on the news or HBO), it’s a fantastic choice.