Josh is twenty-six and realizes that he has never had a girlfriend. (He thought he had one until his friend told him about his girlfriend's boyfriend, and the boyfriend was not Josh.) This realization makes him think about his life. Was he the one who screwed up? Was there anything he could have done differently?
He decides to investigate what went wrong with the girls who could have become his girlfriends. He starts by contacting Sarah Stevens, a girl from middle school. Josh's parents were very religious and didn't want Josh to date until he was sixteen. Sarah’s family belonged to the same church as him, so that made it a bit easier for Josh to get permission to go out with her. They didn't know how to respond when he told them about his desire to date her, but after several days his parents agreed that it might be okay as long as they didn’t give lingering hugs, always had an adult's supervision, and spent no more than twenty minutes on the phone each night. But Sarah bailed on their date at the last minute without telling him why, and they never talked about it until he decided to write this book.
In all Josh contacts six women from his past.
Why I picked it up: Recently I finished a couple of teen romances suggested by my thirteen-year-old daughter (Eleanor & Park, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before) and really enjoyed them. When I saw this book on the table, I thought it was another so I picked it up.
Why I finished it: It wasn’t what I expected, but I loved how lost Josh was. I could tell he was a nice guy and a good person, but I just couldn't believe how overly careful he was, and how much he thought through every possibility instead of enjoying the moment. When he took Francesca, a hot girl from his high school geometry class, to a scenic rock where he hoped to kiss her, he was too overwhelmed with the moment of his first kiss and its possibilities. He was also really freaked out -- because he was wearing thin swim trunks he worried he’d get an erection and be unable to hide it. So he let the moment go.
It’s perfect for: Al, who is young, smart, and has great dimples which will make any girl smile. He happens to use a wheelchair because he cannot walk, and he somehow believes it makes him invisible to girls. What Josh found out through his investigation would give him some different perspective. Josh lost a leg to cancer when he was nine. He’s not overly conscious about his prosthetic leg. And he’s not sure if his inability to get a girlfriend has something to do with his disability.
Twenty years after a deadly pandemic wipes out most of the world’s population, Kirsten Raymonde is performing Shakespeare as part of a roving band of musicians and actors known as the Traveling Symphony. During one of their regular stops, they find that a formerly welcoming town has been taken over by a menacing prophet. When one of his would-be child brides stows away on the Symphony’s way out of town, the Prophet gives chase.
Why I picked it up: Station Eleven had been on my radar ever since it I saw it on io9’s “Best of 2014” list, and then my book club decided to read it.
Why I finished it: Mandel’s prose is stunningly beautiful and perfectly paced, and she takes a far more personal approach to the apocalypse than many authors. Station Eleven avoids dwelling on the end of the world as we know it, and instead opts to tell the stories of individuals both before and after the pandemic. This world is both magical and mundane, and the Symphony’s motto -- “survival is insufficient” -- provides hope that if modern civilization were to collapse, the beautiful things that make life worthwhile would persist.
It’s perfect for: My dad, an English teacher who will get all of the Shakespeare references I missed. Though it’s a very different story, Station Eleven has the same sort of quiet climax as The Historian -- one of my favorite books, and one that was recommended to me by my father -- and both tie together numerous narrative threads in one remarkable package.
Patrick Smith flies as a first officer for an undisclosed airline. For over a decade his side job has been correcting misunderstandings, exploding myths, and answering technical questions about flying. Whether he's posting on his own website askthepilot.com, writing guest editorials for the New York Times, or giving a quick interview to NPR, Smith's knowledge of airline travel and the people who make it happen is surpassed only by his affection for them. Cockpit Confidential is the Patrick’s best compiled in a form that can be legally accessed even during takeoff and landing.
Why I picked it up: Patrick Smith has been my go-to source of information on airline-related news since “Ask The Pilot” was on Salon. It stood to reason that I owed him the price of a book.
Why I finished it: A lot of Cockpit Confidential follows the question and answer format Smith used in Salon, but around the midpoint he poses and answers a question of his own: "Do pilots worry about crashing? Of course they do. As a matter of practicality, they have to. It's their job." I'm a nervous-to-panic-stricken flyer myself, and I found this no-BS approach very reassuring. Smith doesn't pretend the problems of airline travel, both life-threatening and trivial, aren’t real. Instead he talks about them and gets them out there in the open in the hope that people will realize that the rewards of the enterprise far outweigh the risks and annoyances. It doesn't hurt that he is close to my age, so his nostalgia for a time when people dressed up to fly is similar to my own.
It’s perfect for: Those people I worry about at Christmas because they're with someone I've already bought a gift for, like my brother (it’s easier to shop for his wife), my brother-in-law, and my college roommate's husband. If they've ever flown on a plane or seen media coverage of a plane crash, I figure Patrick Smith has something to say to them, especially if they're one of those foolish people who think first officers are just pilots in training.
The inhabitants of Hotel Strange are still hibernating when the guests arrive, letting them know it’s already March twenty-first. What are they supposed to feed the guests? What happened to spring? Why hasn’t Mr. Spring arrived before now to wake them up? Marietta, her friend Kiki, and the literate Mr. Leclair put on their winter gear and set out to find him.
Why I picked it up: The cute characters on the cover, including the glowing, green ghost, made me think this would be a lighthearted Halloween graphic novel.
Why I finished it: I love the character designs. Marietta is a very young girl with messy hair, her friend Kiki is a floating purple dude who is all smiles, the pipe-smoking Celestin who wears an antlered mushroom for a hat, and Mr. Snarf, the green, ghostly spirit of the hotel’s guestbook, with his big eyes and rabbit-like ears. Every character in the book seems delightful and friendly, from the blood slurps (bats?) in the cellar to the guests to the gigantic Grouchies in the forest.
Readalikes: I have two favorite graphic novel series featuring fearless young women. Sardine in Outer Space is about a young pirate who adventures with her uncle, Captain Yellow Shoulder, and her friend, Little Louie, and frequently foils the villainous Supermuscleman and Doc Krok. And then there’s Zita the Spacegirl in which a young girl tries to find her way home from an alien planet and makes many friends along the way.
Four hundred years in the future, wars and environmental excess have damaged Earth and decimated the planet’s population. Talis, an AI, has taken control by blowing certain large and populous cities to bits. (Goodbye, San Francisco.) Talis has rules, one of which is "make it personal,” so in order to keep the peace, children of world leaders are held hostage at the Precept. These “Children of Peace” are executed in the event their countries declare war on one another. They are educated and learn to grow their own food, isolated from technology, waiting for the day they will die.
Everything has been going smoothly for Greta, Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy. She just needs to make it sixteen more months when she will turn eighteen. Then she can go home, marry, have children of her own (who will be hostages someday), and prepare to rule in her mother’s place. But Elian, a new arrival, is unable to behave like a proper, well-bred hostage. His robot proctors encourage him with electric shocks. Seeing this, Greta finally wakes up and realizes, for the first time, all of the injustices the hostages have suffered and more: the affection from her roommate, Da-Xia; the emotional distance of Thandi, another hostage; the reason that Atta doesn’t speak anymore; and Elian’s bruises and thinness.
Then Elian’s grandmother comes to free him, declares war, and takes the rest of the children (including Greta) hostage herself. Talis is forced to act.
Why I picked it up: I love dystopian books, and so do my students, especially when they don’t involve zombies, the apocalypse, or natural disasters.
Why I finished it: Talis's utterances made me giggle because they were scattered with movie and TV references. ”Resistance is futile.” ”Everybody out of the pool!” When he shows up in the flesh to save the hostages, I wanted to see what he was going to do. How can he be there? As an AI he isn’t real, is he?
It’s perfect for: Rachel. She’d like Talis’s snarky dialogue -- “Did we learn nothing from The Terminator, people? Did we learn nothing from HAL?” -- because she can shut down annoying boys with a few words. Once, when asked for her phone number, she responded, ”Why? Do you need a babysitter?" And Talis’s contempt towards mere mortals corresponds to Rachel’s attitude toward immature teen boys. (She is so ready for college.)
Forgotten Girl is going through the most awful time of her fifteen-year-old life. Her parents are going through a nasty divorce and her mom has emotionally shut down because of it. She starts writing poems to deal with the pain because she doesn’t have any real friends to confide in. (The 2000 people she knows on Facebook don’t really count as her friends.) If her parents don’t want to be around her or even each other for that matter, why wouldn’t she have trust issues? One night, Forgotten Girl stares out her bedroom window to tune out her parents’ fighting and spots the lit cigarette hanging out of Random Boy’s mouth.
Random Boy has his own issues. His father beats his mother. Why on earth would he bring any friends around? He and Forgotten Girl meet the night she sneaks out of her bedroom window.
They realize they can share their feelings by passing her poetry notebook back and forth. Both have intense rage about their parents, but that rage turns into lust and then love for each other. Then things get out of control and their love turns into obsession and violence.
Why I picked it up: The cover reminded me of the notebooks where I wrote my own poetry when I was in high school.
Why I finished it: I enjoyed that it was in verse. (I was a Creative Writing major in college and have enjoyed reading and writing poetry since I was in high school.) One of the best poems Forgotten Girl composes for Random Boy is called "Let Me."
"Let me into your world.
Show me the gates you think confine you.
I'll rip them down.
Show me your deepest fear.
I'll kill it for you."
I also enjoyed the realistic dialogue and relationship between the two main characters. This exchange was a conversation called "All I Want to Know Is."
"Do you love me?"
"Do you have to ask?"
"It would seem."
"Girl, I would lay my leather jacket across acid rain puddles, rescue you from atomic bombed buildings, and ride into your high school on a white motorcycle if I could."
It’s perfect for: My childhood best friend, Nicole, who always managed to get involved in horrible relationships when we were growing up. Like Forgotten Girl, it took her a long time to realize there’s a massive difference between being lonely and being alone.
Readalikes: Bitter End by Jennifer Brown which tells the story of Alex and Cole. Alexandra (Alex) loves her best friends and her dad, even though he hasn't been there for her since her mom died. When good-looking, athletic Cole transfers to Alex's school senior year, Alex can't help but start crushing on him. She is ecstatic when Cole likes her back. Turns out Cole had to leave his former high school to avoid criminal charges after assaulting his girlfriend. And after Cole makes her feel like she has to choose between her best friends or him, things get ugly.